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US Seizes 31 People at Afghan Raid

March 20, 2002

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SANGESAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ Families cowered in their beds, terrified they’d be bombed, as aircraft and a U.S. ground force swooped in on a village security post in the darkness. ``Dresh!″ _ ``Hands up!″ _ the raiders shouted.

Then, villagers said, the Americans shot the lock off a mosque door, searched the village school and finally, just before dawn prayers, roared off with their 31 suspects.

Frightened Afghans emerged slowly from their homes to see what had happened. Since Sunday’s raid, they still don’t have the answers and Afghan officials say the entire operation was a mistake.

The grape-growing village in southern Afghanistan was once home to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s fugitive spiritual leader, but the seized men were neither Taliban nor al-Qaida members, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

In fact, a key Afghan official said the 31 were actually anti-Taliban militiamen of an Afghan Cabinet member, Aref Khan Noorzai, minister for small industries.

The official, a member of the Kandahar province military council who spoke on condition he not be named, said the Americans should have checked with Afghan officials first.

Instead, he said, they made the same mistake as on Jan. 23, when U.S. special forces raided a compound in Uruzgan province and witnesses reported 21 Afghans killed.

After that attack, American officials acknowledged that the dead and 27 men detained were neither holdouts of the ousted Taliban government nor members of the al-Qaida terrorist network. But they went on to say that U.S. forces had been fired on first and they refused to characterize the operation as a mistake.

This time, no casualties were reported.

A Pentagon spokesman, Brig Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., told reporters the village was targeted because intelligence reports showed ``more ammunition, more weapons in that area. We also saw folks that we didn’t necessarily recognize.″

More important, he said, the Afghans working with U.S. forces ``did not know who was in that compound.

``We went to the compound. No shots were fired. Found out who these folks were. Temporarily detained them. I mean, we never processed them and they never became detainees. But no shots were fired, and those folks were released.″

Asked how soon they were freed, he said, ``shortly after.″

The 31 seized Sunday had still not returned home as of Wednesday afternoon, after being taken to the U.S. Army’s detention center at the airport outside Kandahar, 25 miles east of here. ``Their kids are crying, `Why did they take my father? He’s with the government,′ `` said one of their comrades, Abdul Hakim, 55, who escaped capture because he was off duty Sunday.

On Tuesday, two U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press in Washington that interrogations had determined the 31 were not Taliban or al-Qaida members. That was a reversal from earlier statements, including one that many foreign al-Qaida members were among the group.

But on Wednesday a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman, said: ``We are still evaluating these people to determine who they are and why they were there.″

Later on Wednesday, when asked whether the men were indeed still being held, Rosa reiterated they had been released.

Back at the scene of the raid, the local police commander said he could have told the Americans that the detained men were there working for him.

``They’re in charge of road security for Sangesar. They’re good men,″ said Rahmatullah, 41, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

``I don’t know why the Americans didn’t inform us, take us into their confidence. I’m responsible for the area,″ said the commander, who is also acting chief for the surrounding Maivend district.

As everywhere in Afghanistan, provisional security arrangements were made for Maivend after a U.S.-led war toppled the Taliban in December. For three months, dozens of militiamen loyal to Aref Khan Noorzai, many from the nearby village of Pashmul, have manned the small security compound here beside the main east-west road bisecting southern Afghanistan. They routinely greeted and waved on U.S. military patrols on the highway.

About 2:30 last Sunday morning, when most of the security force was sleeping in the compound, the Americans came in force.

``About 10 to 15 vehicles, armored vehicles and regular cars, went down off the road″ to the compound, said the closest witness, village night watchman Abdul Sattar, 45. People in some of the nearby mud-walled houses could hear shouting in a foreign language, and the men inside being ordered out.

Several loud aircraft were circling overhead, one of them extremely low, villagers said.

Sattar said he hid and saw the Americans shoot off the padlock on a mosque to search it. They did the same at a vacant concrete house. Those were the only instances of gunfire, villagers said.

``I couldn’t come out of the house. Soldiers were patrolling up and down nearby,″ said Abdul Qadir, 60. ``We couldn’t sleep _ the kids couldn’t sleep _ because we were so afraid of bombing.″

Long after dawn, villagers entered the security building and found bedclothes, turbans and shoes scattered about, and some discarded strips used for binding wrists, indicating the men had been led off barefoot and bound, said Naib Jan, 38, a district council member.

Villagers suggested someone may have misinformed the Americans about the security men’s loyalties as retribution in a local political dispute. Others doubted that. Area elders were meeting Wednesday to organize a delegation to send to Kandahar if the men weren’t released immediately.

``We want an answer why this was done. We’re not criminals. We’re not Taliban,″ said security team member Abdul Hakim. ``Next time they’ll raid our houses.″

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