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US Soldiers Come Under Small Arms Fire in Kandahar

A group of U.S. soldiers has come under small arms fire in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar after visiting a hospital holding civilians allegedly injured in a U.S. airstrike.

Pentagon officials are not characterizing the Kandahar incident as a reprisal attack for the alleged errant U.S. airstrike.

But they acknowledge one American soldier was slightly wounded when a three-vehicle U.S. convoy was hit with about 20 rounds of small arms fire after leaving a local hospital.

A spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Catherine Abbott, says six U.S. soldiers had visited the hospital to check on 19 wounded Afghan villagers. The villagers were allegedly injured during a U.S. air attack on a remote area north of Kandahar.

Much about that incident remains unclear. Despite local reports claiming 40 to 100 people may have been killed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is cautioning reporters against leaping to any conclusions until investigators gather the facts. "These incidents, when they occur, take some time to sort out," he said.

Pentagon officials say the only known casualties in the area are four injured people who were evacuated by U.S. forces for medical treatment.

They dispute suggestions any casualties were the result of an errant U-S bomb from a strike on a nearby suspected Taleban or al-Qaida cave and bunker complex.

The military says six bombs, dropped by a B-52, hit the target but a seventh went astray. However, officials say that bomb exploded harmlessly on a hillside where there were no people.

The only other U.S. aircraft confirmed in the area was an AC-130 gunship, equipped with a cannon and heavy machine guns.

General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that plane did fire at six separate ground locations but only in response to anti-aircraft fire.

"The only thing I am sure of is that at the time, the weapons from the AC-130 were being fired at the ground, that the controller on the ground and the aircrew in the airplane believed they were returning fire against anti-aircraft weapons, which has happened repeatedly in that particular area and that was reported to be taken place at the time the AC 130 fired.

Some reports have suggested the AC 130 may have mistaken celebratory rifle fire from a wedding.

But Pentagon officials say civilian casualties could also have been caused by anti-aircraft fire falling to the ground. They also suggest the ground fire was more sustained and heavier than mere gunshots fired into the air at random.

In addition to the U.S. aircraft, the Pentagon says 300 to 400 mainly Afghan coalition forces were in the area conducting an operation.

Little is known about their mission, but the area in Oruzgan Province has long been considered a Taleban and al-Qaida stronghold.