Six children were crushed to death by a collapsing wall during an assault by U.S. forces on a weapons compound in eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday — the second time in a week that children have been killed in U.S. action against Taliban and al-Qaida suspects.
Both incidents occurred in Pashtun-dominated areas, risking further alienation among the country’s largest ethnic group from which the Islamic militant Taliban emerged. The areas already have been a focus of insurgent attacks on coalition and government targets, and international aid workers.
Two adults were killed along with the six children during an attack Friday night against a complex in Paktia province where a renegade Afghan commander, Mullah Jalani, kept a huge cache of weapons, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty.
“The next day we discovered the bodies of two adults and six children,” he said. “We had no indication there were noncombatants” in the compound.
Jalani is believed to be an associate of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister who has joined the resurgent Taliban. The military believes Jalani was involved in recent attacks against coalition forces, but has not provided any details.
Jalani was not at the site, but nine other people were arrested, Hilferty said. He did not identify the adults that were killed or say whether they were combatants or civilians.
Hilferty said U.S. warplanes and troops attacked the compound, setting off secondary explosions. He expressed regret over the death of civilians in Afghanistan, but said it was impossible to completely avoid such incidents.
“We try very hard not to kill anyone. We would prefer to capture the terrorists rather than kill them,” Hilferty said.
“But in this incident, if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences.”
There was no word of U.S. casualties in the operation. Hilferty said gunfire was directed at the troops from inside the compound.
Biggest operation since Taliban's fall
The U.S. military, which on Dec. 2 launched what it describes as its biggest operation against militants since the fall of the Taliban two years ago, says it found hidden storage compartments containing hundreds of 107mm rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and several howitzers at the compound.
It was unclear if the wall was knocked down by troops searching for weapons or the secondary explosions. Hilferty said it was still too dangerous to search the whole site.
The news came just days after a tragic U.S. military blunder in neighboring Ghazni province. Nine children were found dead in a field Saturday, gunned down by an A-10 ground attack aircraft that was targeting a Taliban suspect.
U.S. officials have apologized for that incident.
They originally claimed that the attack killed the intended target, a former Taliban district commander named Mullah Wazir suspected of recent attacks on road workers. But U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on Tuesday said they were no longer certain.
Villagers say the man killed was a local laborer who had just returned from Iran and that Mullah Wazir had left the area days before the attack.
The Ghazni deaths produced outrage and concern, from Afghan villagers to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said he was “profoundly saddened” by the deaths and urged a full investigation.
Afghan officials warned that such mistakes will undermine support for the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai and tolerance of foreign troops.
Karzai, himself a Pashtun, on Wednesday said he was “very sad,” about the Ghazni killings and indicated he was working with the Americans “to find ways to prevent incidents like that” from happening again.
“I can’t guarantee that we will not injure more civilians,” Hilferty said. “I wish I could.”
Under its new Operation Avalanche, involving about 2,000 troops across the south and east of the country, the U.S. military began an air assault in Khost province along the mountainous border with Pakistan.
Hilferty said less than 100 troops took part — far less than suggested Tuesday — and that he had no information on any combat or casualties.