Senior U.S. defense officials say they are taking special precautions to prevent local Afghan leaders from manipulating American forces into attacking their rivals.

It has been a priority for U.S. military planners from the start - take an even-handed approach in dealings with anti-Taleban forces and avoid any appearance of favoring one group over another.

But recent reports from Afghanistan suggest that on at least one occasion, an anti-Taleban commander provided information for U.S. airstrikes in order to eliminate a political rival.

The Pentagon says it does not believe such reports are true and the Afghan anti-Taleban commander in question, Pacha Khan Zadran, has been quoted in The New York Times as denying he gave U.S. forces any information about who or where to bomb.

But the allegations have prompted a top defense official, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, to say great care has been taken by General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. operation, in the selection of targets for bomb attacks.

"General Franks and particularly those forces in Afghanistan are confident in the target selection process, or the target assignment process, since we are dealing with close air support for the most part," he said.

Admiral Stufflebeem declines to discuss how U.S. forces collect intelligence. But he tells reporters it is a top priority to avoid any possible manipulation by local Afghan leaders.

"To get into more specifics gets into how we are collecting the intelligence on that. I have heard a report, one report only, of what you allude to, which may be that one competitor may be trying to use our capability for the benefit of his versus another. And our special operating forces on the ground and other government agencies work very hard to prevent that from happening. So I do not believe that that is, in fact, true. And I know that that is a priority for General Franks to avoid," Admiral Stufflebeem explained.

The report referred to by Admiral Stufflebeem involved an attack by U.S. planes on a convoy in December, in which some 50 to 60 people were killed. The casualties are reported to have included tribal elders heading to Kabul for the inauguration of Afghanistan's new interim government.

The Pentagon, accused of acting at the behest of a local commander who wanted the elders eliminated, maintains the convoy was carrying Taleban and al-Qaida fighters.

Pentagon officials say their intelligence on possible targets comes from a variety of sources. They say they are confident about the overall accuracy of the process - especially in restricting strikes to legitimate Taleban or al-Qaida terrorist targets.