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Pentagon Expresses Regret for Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan

Afghan girls walk past the graves of nine children killed in a US air strike, at a local cemetery in village Hutala (File Photo - Dec. 7, 2003)
The U.S. Defense Department has expressed regret for the civilian deaths in an air strike in Afghanistan on Friday, that the Afghan president's office is investigating. Details of the incident in eastern Afghanistan are still not clear, nor is the fate of a missing U.S. serviceman in the area.

Early Tuesday, the Defense Department said that between 14 and 17 people died in the attack, and that about half of them were civilians. The Department says the others were Taleban or al-Qaida fighters.

Later, the senior spokesman, Lawrence DiRita said the house that was hit apparently was the target of the bomber, but that some non-combatants may have been inside. "We take great strides to be precise in our military activities," he said. "I think we've been very precise. But these things do occur. And we obviously regret when they do. And we'll investigate to be able to determine what may have happened and how it can be avoided in the future."

Mr. DiRita called the civilian deaths "very unfortunate," but noted that they came in the context of a counter-terrorism operation.

The Afghan president's office has ordered an investigation into the civilian deaths. The provincial governor in the area says 17 civilians died when a second bomb hit the house as a crowd gathered to look at the damage from the first strike. The Pentagon has not confirmed that version of events, but says it is conducting its own investigation.

Mr. DiRita declined to provide any additional information on an American serviceman believed to be missing in eastern Afghanistan. The man, reported to be a member of the elite Navy SEALS special operations unit, is the last of a four-member team that got in trouble in the mountainous area a week ago.

A helicopter full of troops sent to help the team crashed, apparently after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade, killing all 16 people on board. Later, one member of the original team was found alive and two others were found dead. Mr. DiRita would not say how the two men died.

He declined to provide any further information, saying operations are continuing in the area and lives are at risk.