Village air raid: error or an act of terror?

Scores killed by B-52s
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The Independent Online

When Lal Gul walked into the village of Kama Ado yesterday morning, the B-52s had scarcely passed overhead, but to his eyes it seemed that no one could be left alive.

The houses were collapsed, and their broken wooden roofs were burning from four sets of bombs that had landed half an hour before. "We could hear the sounds of children calling out, and yelling," says Mr Gul, a farmer from the next village. "Then this boy and his grandmother walked towards us, saying, 'Help us, help us'. There were 30 houses in that village, more than 200 people. From a family of 40, only this boy and his grandmother are alive."

The 10-year-old boy, Iqbal Uddin, is in the Jalalabad hospital where Mr Gul took him, a three-hour drive along a wretchedly bumpy road. He is moaning quietly, and there are bandages around his belly where the shrapnel caught him. One of his ribs is broken, and the shockwave from the bomb collapsed his lungs.

From here to Osama bin Laden's suspected hideout in the White Mountains is a day's journey overland – but perhaps from the cockpit of a B-52 it seems like no distance at all. How else to explain why the bombs were unloaded on Kama Ado? "I have never seen any Taliban in that village,'' said Mr Gul. "The Arabs of Osama are far away. We are poor people – if we had any money we would have escaped before now to Pakistan.''

Reports from mujahedin commanders in Jalalabad suggest that at least 65, and perhaps more than 300, people were killed by American air raids on Friday night and yesterday morning. In two villages in the Mairajuddin district, 50 people are confirmed dead, according to Hazrat Ali, head of security in Jalalabad. "It's possible that the total is more than 100," he said last night.

The dead in the Mairajuddin district are the first civilian victims of a new stage in the war in Afghanistan: the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora area of the White Mountains. All morning, stories trickled into Jalalabad of at least four separate sets of bombing strikes on other villages too small to be marked on any map. They remain unconfirmed but, thanks to Mr Gul, we have a good idea of what happened to Kama Ado.

It began at about 3.30am yesterday, when Muslims take their pre-dawn breakfast during Ramadan. Most of the villagers were in their houses.

A young man named Khalil also lies in hospital, with a broken arm and a bloody bandage around his head. He survived for one reason only: he was caught short during the middle of the meal, and when the bombs destroyed the house where his family was eating, he was squatting under a tree. "I was carried away,'' he says. "But I saw that a lot of my relatives were dead.''

Was the bombing of Kama Ado entirely a mistake or was there a ruthless logic to it? Al-Qa'ida members holed up in the Tora Bora area have networks in the surrounding villages, and are paying local people to give them food.

"This is the fault of our own people," said Commander Ali. "They are working with the US, giving false reports that there are al-Qa'ida camps, but they are not there," he said. The Northern Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said in Kabul yesterday that he did not believe Mr bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area, but in the south.