US friendly fire 'kills allies of new Kabul regime'

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American warplanes have destroyed a convoy of vehicles, killing at least 15 people, in what was claimed to be a disastrous attack on a party of tribal elders travelling to today's inauguration of the new Afghan government.

If the deaths in the Tora Bora region are confirmed as "friendly fire" they will cast a pall over today's inauguration ceremony at which Royal Marines will be standing guard.

Pentagon officials announced that AC-130 gunships and Navy jet fighters had knocked out about a dozen vehicles and the "compound" from which they had emerged, killing an unspecified number of people they characterised as members of the enemy "leadership". But local tribal leaders claimed the victims were supporters of the interim leader, Hamid Karzai, and the air strike was based on incorrect information passed on by local informers.

Northern Alliance commanders put the death toll at between 15 and 20, a figure corroborated by other local sources. The pro-Taliban Afghan Islamic Press, based in Pakistan, said up to 65 people had been killed.

"Several Afghan elders, tribal chiefs and commanders were among the victims of the killings," the AIP report quoted Sayed Yaqeen, an official of the local Paktia tribal council, as saying.

The convoy was attacked on the road from Khost, site of a former al-Qa'ida training camp, to Gardez. Witnesses said local Taliban supporters had turned out to protest against the convoy and the new government, forcing the vehicles to divert off the main road on to a bypass.

Among those reported killed was Mohammadi Ibrahim, a local militia commander who might have been confused with his brother, Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a one-time Taliban loyalist.

Initial briefings by American government officials gave no hint of an admission that anything had gone wrong. "The intelligence we gathered at the time indicated to us that this was in fact leadership and we struck the leadership," General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news briefing in Washington. He added: "The vehicles were destroyed, the people were killed and the compound from which they left was destroyed."

America has been anxious to move into a new phase in the campaign to root out remaining al-Qa'ida and Taliban loyalists and determine Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. Several dozen US special forces troops are already in the Tora Bora area, alongside Afghan fighters, and their numbers could swell to several hundred, according to the US war commander, General Tommy Franks.

They intend to start moving imminently from cave to cave, looking not only for anyone who has survived last week's air and ground assault, but also for the dead ­ for identification purposes ­ and for documents and other material helpful to intelligence services.