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US-Afghan Team Investigates US Air Attack - 2002-07-02

A joint U.S.- Afghan team has traveled to a remote village in southern Afghanistan where local reports say between 40 and 100 civilians may have been killed in a U.S. air attack.

Much about the incident north of Kandahar remains unclear, and 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.

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

They also 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 such heavy bombs, dropped by a B-52, hit those targets but a seventh went astray. Nevertheless, officials say a U.S. ground observer saw that bomb explode 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 responded to anti-aircraft fire from the ground by striking six separate locations. "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," he said.

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.