Insurgents fired two rockets Monday into a crowded market northeast of Kabul where the head of French forces in Afghanistan was holding a meeting with tribal elders. The attack killed 12 Afghan civilians and wounded at least another 38, the French military said.
Lt. Col. Lionel, who can only be identified by his first name in accordance with French military policy, witnessed the attack in the town of Tagab in Kapisa province and said the target had been the meeting, known as a shura, where Brig. Gen. Marcel Druart was discussing with tribal elders a major French offensive in the Tagab Valley the previous day.
"The target was clearly the shura," Lionel said, explaining that these types of meetings were vulnerable because so many invitations to attend were issued in advance.
Druart, who was not hurt, told The Associated Press that the attack "shows clearly that the insurgents don't care about the lives of the civilian Afghan population."
Speaking at the NATO forward operating base in the Tagab Valley, Druart said French forces immediately retaliated with artillery shelling on the rockets' launching site. Sporadic shelling could be heard throughout the afternoon, as attack helicopters hovered overhead.
He denied early army reports that one of the rockets had fallen at about a dozen meters from the shura, saying it had fallen about 200 yards away.
NATO: No troops hurt
Druart is the commander of the French Lafayette Task Force in Afghanistan. France has more than 3,000 troops stationed mainly north of Kabul in the Kapisa and Surobi areas.
French officers said none of the wounded were NATO troops. One French Caracal and three U.S. Blackhawk helicopters evacuated those hurt from the area.
The shura, which was being held in a building next to the main market, had been going for about 90 minutes when the rockets fell. Druart said the meeting continued despite the attack to show that the Taliban could not disrupt NATO's plans.
"The Afghans stayed and the talks continued," he said.
Maj. Philippe, an army doctor who was flown to Tagab to treat the wounded, said 38 wounded and four dead were brought to the NATO outpost in Tagab.
He said one of the dead included was a young boy, but could not specify the others because their relatives immediately carried them away for burial, according to Muslim customs.
The shura was being attended by about 40 Afghan officials, including the local police chief, the regional deputy governor, tribal chiefs and religious elders, to discuss Sunday's offensive.
About 700 French and 100 Afghan soldiers with more than 100 armored vehicles launched the operation in the hostile valley, 30 miles northeast of Kabul. It has long been a safe haven for the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Druart said there were 300 fighters estimated to be operating here.
Quick militant strikes
Militants here stage quick strikes, including on Kabul, then disappear into villages. Gunmen were seen firing from the roofs of houses on the advancing column of vehicles during the pre-dawn operation Sunday.
The Avalon offensive aimed to secure the area for a planned road, financed by the United States with checkpoints funded by the European Union, to bypass Kabul while moving supplies from neighboring Pakistan, said Col. Francis Chanson, head of France's 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment.
NATO forces have bases in the Tagab Valley but have had difficulty stabilizing the mountainous area connected by small footpaths.
In September, two French soldiers were killed and eight wounded in a roadside bomb attack in the Tagab area.
Separately in southern Afghanistan, militants attacked a police checkpoint in the violent province of Kandahar overnight, killing at least three policemen and wounding another six, police criminal director of Kandahar Pashton Moamand said.
However, a local police official from the Argandab district where the attack occurred had a higher death toll. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said eight policemen were killed and three seriously wounded. He said a group of militants attacked the checkpoint from three sides with gunfire and grenades at about 2 a.m. Monday, and then fled.