Sun, Aug 05, 2007 - Page 5 News List

US-led airstrike targets Taliban rebels

OPERATIONThe strike was conducted on a large gathering the Afghan defense ministry said was to execute four people for cooperating with the government

AFP , KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

An airstrike on a large Taliban gathering killed dozens of rebels, the defense ministry said Friday, with at least 30 civilians wounded and unconfirmed reports of many more killed.

The US-led coalition forces said they had conducted a "precision air strike" against two notorious Taliban commanders meeting in the rebel-controlled and remote area of Baghran district in the southern province of Helmand.

The Afghan defense ministry said the gathering was to execute four people on charges of cooperating with the government and had attracted several militant leaders including top Taliban military commander Mansour Dadullah.

"In an aerial operation, tens of terrorists were killed. The bodies of Taliban leaders ... and tens of other terrorists are on the spot and have been identified," he said.

Azimi said officials were trying to confirm if Dadullah, who replaced his notorious brother -- top commander Mullah Dadullah -- after he was killed this year, was among the dead.

"The process of identifying the eliminated terrorists is still ongoing," he said.

There were claims of around 200 civilians also killed or wounded in the attack but Azimi said numbers in the area had been fewer.

"We are investigating the claims of civilians casualties. So far only some wounded have been transferred to hospitals. We doubt the presence of civilians in such gatherings," he said.

wounded

Twenty wounded people were admitted to a hospital in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, Helmand police chief Mohammad Hussain Andiwal said. "We fear many more casualties," he said.

A reporter said that 12 wounded, many covered in blood and mud, were in a hospital in Kandahar, about one hour's drive from Lashkar Gah and the largest city in southern Afghanistan. Two were children, he said.

Andiwal said some of the wounded had told him the strike had hit a large number of people gathered to watch the Taliban's public hanging of people they had labelled criminals.

A man named Abdullah Jan, who claimed to have witnessed the incident, said by telephone that around 150 civilians watching the Taliban's public execution were killed or wounded in the air strike.

It was not possible to immediately verify his account.

The Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, claimed however there had been no public execution -- a common practice when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. He said the crowd had gathered at a shrine.

The US-led coalition said there were no civilians in the targeted area and the force had "actionable intelligence" that two provincial-level Taliban commanders were there.

"During a sizable meeting of senior Taliban commanders, coalition forces employed precision guided munitions on their location after ensuring there were no innocent Afghans in the surrounding area," it said in a statement.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force which works alongside the coalition said the air strike was only called after multiple sources confirmed that several Taliban leaders and their followers were at the site.

The Taliban-led insurgency that is holding back Afghanistan's attempts to recover after decades of war has intensified this year with the rebels said to control several areas, particularly in the south.

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