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Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 03:19 GMT
Afghan convoy bombing row grows
Bullet-ridden vehicle
Up to 60 people were killed, villagers say
Villagers in eastern Afghanistan say dozens of civilians were killed when a convoy of vehicles carrying tribal elders to the inauguration of Hamid Karzai's interim government was bombed by American warplanes.

The people who got hit were going to congratulate Karzai on the transfer of power

Villager Khodai Noor
Residents of Asmani Kilai in Paktia province told a Reuters news agency television crew that the air strikes, which lasted seven hours from Thursday night into Friday morning, killed up to 60 people and destroyed 15 vehicles.

About 10 houses and a mosque were also destroyed, they said.

The television crew saw bullet-riddled vehicles and people salvaging possessions from the rubble of their homes.

General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan
General Franks: "We believe it was a bad convoy"
The United States continues to insist that its planes attacked a convoy that was carrying leaders of the former Taleban regime - or its allies in Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network - and had opened fire with anti-aircraft missiles.

Villager Khodai Noor said: "The people who got hit were going to congratulate Karzai on the transfer of power.

"There are no members of al-Qaeda or supporters of Bin Laden here."

He suggested that a local warlord might deliberately have misinformed US forces - telling them by satellite phone that the convoy was carrying al-Qaeda leaders - to settle a score.

The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, said an investigation was under way.

AC-130 gunship
AC-130 gunships, along with fighter jets, attacked the convoy
But he defended the pilots' actions, saying: "Friendly forces don't fire surface-to-air missiles at you. We believe it was a bad convoy. We have reason to believe it was a good target."

However, the BBC's Ian McWilliam in the Afghan capital, Kabul, says it seems unlikely that al-Qaeda fighters would travel in such a long convoy in areas they knew were being watched by American planes.

Mr Karzai, the new prime minister, said he would check reports of the attack but did not believe tribal chiefs had been bombed.

"If they were al-Qaeda members then they were not tribal chiefs," he told reporters.

The villagers' account tallies with that of a delegation of tribal leaders from the eastern town of Gardez who attended Saturday's inauguration ceremony in Kabul.

They said they had expected to be joined by a convoy from the town of Khost, but it never arrived after it was attacked by US aircraft and 65 people were killed.

Hunt for Bin Laden

US forces in eastern Afghanistan continue to search for Bin Laden - the man suspected of masterminding the 11 September terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Anti-Taleban Afghan forces took control of the Tora Bora cave complex last week.

There is a great possibility that he (Bin Laden) may have lost his life

President Musharraf
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is visiting China, expressed confidence that Bin Laden had not slipped over the border into Pakistan.

He said there was a "great possibility" that the al-Qaeda leader was dead.

General Musharraf said Pakistan would hand Bin Laden over to the US if he was caught.

"He's not in Pakistan, of that we are reasonably sure," General Musharraf told Chinese state television. "But we can't be 100% sure.

"Maybe he is dead because of all the operations that have been conducted, the bombardment of all the caves. There is a great possibility that he may have lost his life there."

The BBC's Ian MacWilliam
"The Pentagon says the convoy they hit was one of Taleban fighters"
US Central Command spokesman Brad Lowell
"We are sure this was a military target"
Reuters correspondent Paul Homes
"According to the villagers, they were unarmed tribal leaders"
See also:

23 Dec 01 | Europe
Germany approves Afghan force
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