KABUL, Afghanistan — Rebels attacked a U.S. military medical team as it was helping villagers in the same region of eastern Afghanistan where a U.S. airstrike that killed up to 17 civilians sparked sharp criticism from the government, the military said Wednesday.
No one was wounded in the assault Tuesday on the medical team near the town of Asadabad in Kunar province, a military statement said. U.S. forces used mortars to respond and the insurgents fled.
“It’s incredible to us that the enemy would attack our forces while we are providing innocent Afghans with health care,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said.
The airstrike last Friday also was in Kunar and targeted a known terrorist base, the U.S. military said, but an Afghan government spokesman said the deaths of the civilians, including women and children, could not be justified.
It marked unusual criticism from the government of President Hamid Karzai, often viewed by critics as an American puppet. The United States provides security for the president as well as hundreds of millions of dollars a year in aid to Afghanistan.
The reprimand also highlighted Afghan government concern that deadly mistakes could erode public support for the U.S. presence here. In the past, Karzai’s government has expressed interest in a long-term U.S. military presence in the region as Afghanistan recovers from nearly a quarter-century of war.
Search for missing SEAL
U.S. forces, meanwhile, spent an eighth day scouring mountains in Kunar searching for the final member of an elite four-man Navy SEAL commando team that went missing June 28.
One SEAL has been rescued, while the bodies of two others were recovered Monday and taken to the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, at Bagram, a U.S. military statement said. A transport helicopter sent in to rescue the four was shot down the day the team went missing, killing all 16 U.S. servicemen aboard.
O’Hara said rescuers searching for the final missing team member were “still hopeful,” adding, “until you know otherwise, you have to assume he is alive.”
A U.S. military statement said the sole rescued serviceman was receiving medical treatment for “non-life-threatening injuries” at the Bagram base.
Airstrike kills civilians
The air strike that killed civilians targeted a house in the same area. The number of people killed was still unclear, but “roughly half” may have been civilians, while the rest were Taliban or al-Qaida fighters, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday.
U.S. forces described the house as “a known operating base for terrorist attacks ... as well as a base for a medium-level terrorist leader.”
“We deeply regret any loss of civilian life in the course of military actions,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the U.S. military takes “great strides” in trying to be precise when targeting combatants.
“But these things do occur and we obviously regret when they do. And we’ll investigate to be able to determine what may have happened and how it can be avoided in the future,” he said.
Jawed Ludin, Karzai’s chief of staff, said “there is no way ... the killing of civilians can be justified.”
An initial U.S. air strike destroyed a house, and as villagers gathered to look at the damage, a U.S. warplane dropped a second bomb on the same target, killing 17 people, including three women and children, Kunar provincial Gov. Asadullah Wafa said.
He said it was unclear who was killed in the initial attack on the tiny village of Chechal.
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