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Deadly Raid Said Part of Omar Hunt

July 23, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Soldiers were pressing the search for top Taliban fugitive Mullah Mohammed Omar earlier this month when the mission tragically went awry, killing dozens of Afghans celebrating a wedding, defense officials said Tuesday.

The Pentagon has previously declined to say what troops were doing in the area of Uruzgan province on the night when Afghans reported several villages attacked and 40 civilians killed by a U.S. warplane.

But two Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday, said U.S. special forces teamed with Afghan allies were pursuing intelligence tips suggesting that Omar, one or more of his top commanders, or some other level of Taliban of al-Qaida figure might be in the area. American commanders had enough credible information to believe it was worth sending in troops, one defense official said.

The mission had been under way for days before U.S. forces struck back at what they believed was enemy anti-aircraft fire.

The incident has strained relations between the U.S. military and Afghan leaders and is still under investigation.

Uruzgan, in central Afghanistan, is Omar’s home province and one of the places where coalition forces for months have had search missions to root out remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida figures. Much attention also has been directed on the southeastern provinces of Paktia and Paktika along the Pakistan border.

Omar is still believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, a U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday. This official, too, agreed to speak only on grounds of anonymity.

Omar ``may still be in the area″ of Uruzgan, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s editions of The Washington Post.

As many as 400 U.S. and Afghan ground forces were conducting a reconnaissance and search operation in the Uruzgan province as the tragedy unfolded, officials previously said. There also were U.S. special operations troops acting as air controllers on the ground at two locations in the area.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that video from Air Force AC-130 gunship that struck on July 1 shows gunfire from the ground. But it is difficult to tell from the nighttime video whether anti-aircraft guns were being fired at the plane.

``Clearly there was ground fire,″ he said, adding that the airstrike was based on observations by U.S. troops on the ground, not false information from Afghans seeking to harm factional rivals, as has been suggested by some reports from the area.

``We had people on the ground with eyes on targets who saw anti-aircraft (guns) and targeted them,″ Rumsfeld told Pentagon press conference.

Rumsfeld said the U.S. bombing campaign has been the most accurate ever and the number of civilian casualties relatively low.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has captured several suspected al-Qaida fugitives in the past two weeks, including one who may have been a top official for the terrorist network, Rumsfeld said.

U.S. officials are not certain about the identity of those who were apprehended, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference, but ``there is some hope″ that one played a significant role in al-Qaida.

Rumsfeld used the news conference to announce progress in the nine-month-old war in Afghanistan. He praised the contributions of Pakistan and dozens of other countries in helping U.S. forces hunt down terrorists.

Rumsfeld announced that Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands will send F-16 fighter jets to Kyrgyzstan for use in air operations over Afghanistan, and that Slovakia has offered to send an engineering unit to Afghanistan. At the same time, Britain and Canada are withdrawing their ground forces.

``A lot of work remains to be done, but even at this early stage in the war the coalition can take a good deal of pride in the successes that they have achieved thus far,″ he said.

Rumsfeld predicted that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden eventually will be captured or killed, if he is not already dead.

Rumsfeld confirmed that U.S. soldiers have started providing security for Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan’s transitional government. U.S. soldiers replaced Karzai’s Afghan guards after the assassination of an Afghan vice president this month raised concern about larger problems with security in Kabul.

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