US military steps up operations against Taliban insurgents

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The Independent Online

The United States military has launched what it describes as its biggest operation against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

The US military said yesterday that about 2,000 of the 11,500 US-led troops in the country were taking part in "Operation Avalanche" across eastern and southern Afghanistan. Taliban and al-Qa'ida Islamic militants have recently regained strength and carried out a series of attacks on foreign troops and aid workers.

The American assault is aimed at killing or capturing militants to make the area safe for aid and reconstruction work. But the timing could not be worse. The credibility of US military suffered a serious blow at the weekend when warplanes bombed a village, killing nine children and one man.

Seven boys and two girls, the eldest aged 12, died when an A-10 Warthog plane peppered a field with 30mm high-explosive rounds. Lt-Col Bryan Hilferty, a US military spokesman, said the strike was meant to kill a "known terrorist". But, he said: "When we got there, we found the bodies of nine children and one adult man."

In the village of Hutala, nestled in the mountains of the Hindu Kush 150 miles west of Kabul, local people say the children who died were playing with marbles in the shade of a tree. A boy was collecting water from the well for his mother.

The first American warplane appeared from behind a hill, firing a succession of rockets and bullets.

By the time the second A-10 Warthog had unleashed its weaponry, nine children and one man were dead.

The next day the villagers were still huddled around a heap of children's hats and shoes, ripped by shrapnel. Marbles were scattered across the ground, by the patches of dried blood. Picking up a dusty hat, Sarwar Khan said: "This is all that remains of one of my boys." His two sons and one of his nephews, were killed.

The US military in Afghanistan says it was acting on extensive intelligence, gathered over a long period of time. The target was Mullah Wazir, a former member of the Taliban, described by the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, as a "financier, facilitator, and organiser of terrorist attacks". Local people say he is a businessman who imports motorcycles from Iran.

The Americans insist they killed their intended target, but people in the village say Mullah Wazir left 10 days ago, after another raid near by. Just 30 metres from where the children died stands Mullah Wazir's house. It remains intact: even the windows are unbroken.

A 25-year-old man, Abdul Muhammad, was killed in the attack, but the villagers deny he was involved in terrorism. His mother said he had just returned home after three years digging wells in Iran. He was due to marry in five days.

On Sunday evening, the American army was still in the village. The clean-up operation was efficient, but that was little consolation for Abdul Muhammad's mother. No one had been to see her, she said, and she had been given no explanation for her son's death.

Many questions remain unanswered. What was the extensive intelligence the Americans say they had gathered, over a number of weeks? How could the planes have so clearly missed their target?

The village, set among jagged mountains, in a remote area of the Pashtun heartland, will never be the same again, but the pain this attack has caused is being felt across the country, particularly by other Pashtuns. The majority ethnic group is already deeply disenchanted with the new political dispensation in Afghanistan and with the interim government's perceived closeness to the United States.

Events like this only outrage the population further, arguably driving yet more young men into the hands of the militants.

"We do make mistakes," Lt-Col Hilferty said. "War is an inexact art, there is a fog and a friction in war, but we will continue to do the best we can to help them."

But the American protestations fell on deaf ears. Sadokhan Ambarkhil, the deputy governor of Paktika, one of the most dangerous provinces for the coalition troops and their Afghan allies, said: "Every innocent who is killed has brothers, uncles, sisters and nephews - and behind them the tribe. If 10 people are killed, how many people are saddened?"

The warplane attack was also criticised outside Afghanistan. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said he was "profoundly saddened" by the children's deaths and called for a thorough investigation. "The fight against terrorism cannot be won at the expense of innocent lives," Fred Eckhard, Mr Annan's spokesman, said in New York.