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Pentagon: U.S. erred in Afghan airstrikes

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Defense Department said Monday that U.S. troops did not follow proper tactics and procedures during an air assault on Taliban fighters last month.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the number of Taliban militants killed in the May 4 air strikes "greatly outnumbered" the number of civilians slain. But Morrell noted some problems in the way the strikes were carried out, citing a U.S. warplane that appears to have erred in bombing its target.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was briefed Monday on the results of a U.S. Central Command inquiry into the airstrike, but the full report is not expected to be released until later this week.

"There were some problems with some tactics, techniques and procedures, the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case," Morrell told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

He said it appeared that a B-1 bomber "had to break away from the target at least for a period."

"There's no way to determine whether or not that had anything to do with the fact that civilian casualties did occur in this incident, but they (investigators) did note that as one of the problems associated with how this all took place," Morrell said.

U.S. officials previously have said the warplane got permission to attack a suspected Taliban site but did not reconfirm the target before dropping the bomb. That left the possibility that civilians had entered the area or that the Taliban had left in the interim.

Disputed civilian deaths
Afghan officials have said that the civilian toll to the air assault was 140 dead, but U.S. commanders have said they believe no more than 30 civilians were killed, along with 60 to 65 Taliban insurgents.

On Monday, Morrell would not discuss the inquiry's conclusion about how many civilians died, "but they were greatly outnumbered by the Taliban killed in this incident."

According to the U.S. military, the battle in Farah province began a day after Taliban fighters entered two villages, demanded money from civilians and killed three former government employees. An Afghan force rushed in, only to be ambushed by as many as 300 insurgents.

The provincial governor asked for U.S. military help, and American ground troops joined the battle, the U.S. officials said.

Before the battle was over, troops called in F-18 fighter jet airstrikes as well as help from the B-1 bomber, coordinating with the ground commander to strike a half-dozen targets, including buildings and a tree grove that insurgents were firing from or massing in, the U.S. officials have said.