Villages pay price as US bombs go awry
Smucker in Jalalabad
SCORES of villagers have been killed by off-target American bombing of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden's suspected mountain hideout, a senior anti-Taliban commander said yesterday.
Last night, as the barrage continued, explosions could be heard from the outskirts of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, to the north of Tora Bora. Villagers said bombs had missed the target and landed in their impoverished communities a few miles from the cave complex.
Injured Afghans last night packed the emergency wards of Jalalabad's main hospital as relatives, some of whom said they had lost dozens of members of their extended families, denounced the bombings as grossly off-target.
Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, the regional military commander, said bin Laden was sighted in the area three days ago and had been sent a message appealing for negotiations to end the bloodshed.
He said bin Laden was asked to consider the hardship he was bringing to the Afghan people as American aircraft bombed the area. Almost 100 civilians had died over the past three days of raids, he added.
Hazrat Ali, the provincial security chief, said two elders claimed to have received a message from bin Laden in which he said he did not want to fight fellow Muslims, only "foreign troops".
Mr Ali said he had sent a delegation to the White Mountains to negotiate the surrender of the foreign fighters defending bin Laden's mountain base. If they do not comply, he said, they would come under attack from a force of 1,500 troops sent from Jalalabad within days.
Kenton Keith, the spokesman for the US-led coalition, said reports of civilian casualties around Tora Bora were being checked but he could not confirm whether any American bombs had gone astray and accused the Taliban of using "human shields".
Moor Mohamed was still conscious even as doctors said they doubted he would survive. Both of his mangled arms had been amputated. "How can the Americans be so blind?" said Sultan Mohamed, the boy's uncle. "Everyone says Osama is seven miles deep inside Tora Bora in a cave; nowhere near our village."
The strikes on his home were carried out with large "dumb bombs" that blew giant craters in the earth and levelled the mud brick houses at the base of the White Mountains. Dozens of men, women and children were reported to have been buried.
"At 2.30am we heard a huge noise of something hitting our village," said Sultan Mohamed. "It was a giant bomb but it just hit with a thud and did not explode. The second one hit nearby and the third one hit our roof. Moor was sleeping and it took us two hours to pry him free from the rubble. I'm afraid it was too late."
In the same ward, 14 other men and boys were critically injured. A room down the hall for females included still younger children, who had been injured in the blast while sleeping.
Over two days, three villages were hit, all of them at the base of Tora Bora, but apparently far down the road from the Arab guerrillas of bin Laden's al-Qa'eda organisation. Dick Cheney, the US vice president, last week said he believed that bin Laden was hiding in the vast Tora Bora cave network. British defence sources said they had similar intelligence.
The US strikes appeared widely off-target. At least 15 fighters and administrators working with a Western-backed warlord in Jalalabad were killed in bombing. Cdr Ghamsharik had boasted of meeting US representatives in Jalalabad last week.
Lala Agha, a villager, said he had helped to place 22 bodies in lorries and driven them to a burial ground: "I was in a house when the bombs hit and we raced outside digging for bodies. I think there are still dozens buried in the earth."
The young man said some of his fellow villagers were now angry at the commander. "They say that Haji Zaman told the Americans to bomb," he said.
At the main hospital in Jalalabad most of the families of the injured and dying blamed the US military. They said they understood that the Americans had been targeting bin Laden, but questioned how "smart bomb" strikes could have gone so far afield. Niaz Mohamad, 45, said: "The US says that they can see everything. Why don't they hit Osama and not us?"
Some of the villagers vehemently denied that there were any Arabs living in their area. Three weeks ago, a convoy of several hundred Arabs are said to have left their vehicles on the road into Tora Bora.
A 60-year-old man who lost his wife and two grandsons said he escaped because he had left home for the evening prayer. "The Americans are shouting that they will bring peace, but they can't find Osama and instead they bomb us."