updated 1/20/2004 8:00:17 AM ET 2004-01-20T13:00:17

The U.S. military said Tuesday that a weekend airstrike in southern Afghanistan killed five armed militants, not 11 civilians as local officials claimed.The AC-130 gunship killed the five men Saturday night as they left a compound where Taliban leaders gathered, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty.“Our aircraft did not engage noncombatants,” Hilferty said. “We clearly identified and engaged five armed adult males in the open.”Afghan officials assert the airstrike killed four men, four children and three women.People from the Char Chino district, about 250 miles southwest of the capital, met with the governor of Uruzgan province to protest the deaths, said local official Abdul Rahman.Hilferty said U.S. forces called in the airstrike when armed men moved toward special forces troops surrounding the compound to arrest suspected members of the hard-line Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan until being ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. Torn by conflictCrowds of armed men emerged from nearby compounds after the airstrike and the American forces, accompanied by Afghan troops, withdrew to avoid a major battle.U.S. officials vowed to review the procedures for airstrikes after killing 15 Afghan children in two raids last month, drawing strong protests from Afghan officials and the United Nations.Rahman insisted those killed Saturday were civilians.“They were simple villagers. They were not Taliban,” he said. “I don’t know why the U.S. bombed this home.”Rahman complained that coalition forces hunting for fugitives were failing to communicate with local officials, who could capture and suspected militants if asked by the U.S. military.

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