US bombs hit wrong target for second time in two days

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The Independent Online

The American hunt for Osama bin Laden appeared to have gone tragically wrong for the second time in two days yesterday, when US bombers were said to have killed scores of civilians in eastern Afghanistan as well as mujahedin fighters supporting the battle against al-Qa'ida.

A senior mujahedin commander said US strikes killed more than 100 civilians around Agam, 25 miles south of Jalalabad, on top of at least 70 killed in air raids on Saturday night.

At least eight of the latest victims were guards and government officials of the Eastern Shura, the council of anti-Taliban mujahedin leaders who now hold eastern Afghanistan.

Haji Zaman Gamsharik, defence chief for the Eastern Shura, inspected the mutilated bodies of seven of his men, one of them a teenager, who died when American bombs struck a district government office in Agam where they were sleeping.

"These are district officials and guards,'' he said in the mortuary of Jalalabad's Public Health Hospital. "There are more than a hundred.''

The US military acknowledged last night that it was looking into the reports of civilian areas having been hit.

Mujahedin commanders were already reeling from the attacks on Friday night and early Saturday when three villages were bombed, killing at least 70, and perhaps as many as 300, civilians in territory controlled by allies of the anti-terrorism coalition.

The apparent errors came as US warplanes continued to pound the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar and Washington said it was stepping up the hunt for Mr bin Laden in south-east Afghanistan.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said yesterday he did not "know exactly" where Mr bin Laden was, "but we think he is still in Afghanistan and there is reason to believe that he is in the southern and eastern part of the country".

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he would not rule out ordering gas to be pumped into the Tora Bora caves, 28 miles south of Jalalabad, where Mr bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Describing the the pro-Taliban forces in Kandahar as "the most determined and the toughest fighters," he warned the eventual battle for the city could be bloody. "If they don't surrender, they're going to be killed," he said.

As heavy fighting was reported around Kandahar, the Americans said the Taliban forces were "caught in a snake-like squeeze".

Tribal sources said about 3,000 fighters loyal to the city's former governor, Gul Agha, had fought their way to within a mile of the airport, where the "Arab" fighters were holding firm. Meanwhile, about 4,000 fighters under Hamid Karzai advanced to a position 22 miles north of Kandahar, according to Mr Karzai's brother, Ahmed, in Pakistan.

Gul Agha was said to have been wounded by "Arab" supporters loyal to Mr bin Laden, but a spokesman denied that.

In Koenigswinter, Germany, Afghan delegates to UN-sponsored talks yesterday debated a draft outline of a proposed administration to rule the country until a permanent system can be put in place.

The UN hopes to finalise an agreement today, after a week of talks, although key decisions on who gets what job in the interim administration remain to be negotiated.