August 2, 2002


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Mission Unaccomplished
The Rediff Special/ Rahimullah Yusufzai

The bombing of a wedding party in the central Urozgan province, Afghanistan, was a public relations disaster for the United States, an act that will continue to haunt the American military authorities pursuing remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The leak of a report by a United Nations investigating team, accusing the US troops of removing vital evidence from the scene of the bombing, has only added to Washington's woes.

The leak to The Times newspaper in London has embarrassed both the US and the UN. Both have tried to control the damage, the former by denying a cover-up and the latter by trying to dilute the findings of the UN fact-finding team.

The bombing tragedy has been compounded by the discrepancy in the various accounts as to what exactly happened in the remote Dehrawud town in Urozgan on the night of June 30. Even the death toll is a matter of dispute.

A preliminary inquiry carried out by US investigators in the first week of July failed to determine the casualty figure because the team wasn't shown more than five graves. It seems the survivors were so annoyed with the Americans that they refused to take them to the cemetery. Western journalists arriving in Dehrawud around the same time were shown at least 25 graves in one cemetery and this fact was duly reported in the world media.

Then, an 11-member team headed by US Major General Anthony Przybyslawski was assigned the task of doing a comprehensive probe. It undertook an exhaustive investigation with the help of experts in special operations, medical, legal, and public affairs. However, the findings have not yet been published.

The Afghan government has been insisting that 48 people were killed and 118 injured in the botched US bombing raid. Despite the Kabul government's dependence on Washington for its own survival, it has described the raid a mistake and urged the US to avoid civilian casualties while hunting down remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai had sent one of his ministers, Mohammad Arif Nurzai, to Urozgan to find out more about the bombing raid while provincial Governor Jan Mohammad Khan had assisted in finalizing the findings.

The UN report, prepared by a fact-finding team that visited the site on July 3 and 4, has pegged the death toll at 80 and the number of injured at up to 300. This is almost double the figure claimed by the Afghan government and has, understandably, raised doubts about the death toll as stated by the President Karzai government. Incidentally, the first casualty figure reported by independent media outlets soon after the bombing raid was 65 dead. That now seems nearer the truth if one were to believe the UN staff.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General's special representative to Afghanistan, has expressed his scepticism of the death toll mentioned in the report by his staff. And has reportedly asked his staff to adequately substantiate the facts and prepare a more detailed report. According to UN Chief Spokesman Fred Eckhard, Brahimi has not disavowed the initial findings by the UN staff but had only asked for a more substantiated report since the casualty figures weren't fully documented and judgments weren't sufficiently substantiated.

The UN report noted "discrepancies in US accounts of what happened." It said US forces had arrived on the scene very quickly after the air strikes and "cleaned the area," removing evidence of "shrapnel, bullets, and traces of blood." The report, which has now been handed over to the US and the Afghan government, said that women had their hands tied behind their backs. The UN investigators also found "no corroboration" of the US claim that the AC-130 gunship aircraft that fired on the wedding party had been targeted from the ground.

The report, prepared by experienced and reputable UN staff, urged that an in-depth investigation be carried out to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated, and that the protection of civilian lives becomes a primary concern in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The UN findings are similar to what survivors told reporters who reached Dehrawud after the bombing raid. The villagers, including members of the family in whose house the wedding party was on, narrated how American soldiers herded them into the compound and disallowed the injured from seeking medical treatment. The hands of all the people, including women, were tied behind their backs as the American soldiers filmed them.

Women alleged that they were filmed almost naked as their clothes had been torn and burnt in the bombing. As many as 32 injured persons were later shifted by villagers to the Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar but the survivors claimed some of the wounded could have been saved if medical assistance had been provided to them in time.

The US has all along insisted that the AC-130 gunship came under direct hostile fire although preliminary reports had suggested a ground patrol first might have heard automatic weapons fire. Villagers maintained that civilians were gunned down in the midst of a wedding celebration, during which it is traditional for Afghans to open fire in the air.

It is possible that the US aircraft mistook the celebratory aerial firing as hostile gunfire and decided to bomb the village. Another possibility is that the US air strike was intended to kill Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar, who was born in Dehrawud and was believed to be hiding in the area. It later turned out that he wasn't there when Dehrawud was bombed. The faulty information by Afghan informers in the pay of the US has enraged the Urozgan governor and other government officials, who have demanded that the culprits be handed over to them for trial.

The unprovoked bombing raid and the high number of civilian casualties also prompted Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzoi, who is a staunch US ally, to demand that the Americans take the local authorities into confidence before undertaking a military mission.

He also wanted Afghan troops to accompany the US soldiers during military operations to avoid mistakes and proposed creation of a special Afghan force to pursue the members of Al Qaeda and Taliban. However, his efforts to form an alliance of the governors of the six southwestern provinces - Kandahar, Zabul, Urozgan, Helmand, Nimruz and Farah - didn't materialize due to opposition from Karzai.

The transitional Afghan president doesn't want to create hurdles for the US in its so-called war on terrorism and was, therefore, unhappy with the initiative by the governor of his native Kandahar.

The Americans were apparently taken aback when they learnt that the UN had compiled a report on Urozgan bombing raid. The US military authorities, who were not informed that the UN staff too would be carrying out a probe at the site, might now insist that in future every activity that affects them in Afghanistan be cleared by them before it is undertaken. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deployed in Kabul and made up of 5,072 soldiers from 20 European and one Islamic country (Turkey), is already under the command of the US military.

There is already a difference of opinion between the UN and the US on certain issues. The UN would like deployment of the ISAF beyond Kabul to provide security in other parts of Afghanistan. The US hasn't backed the idea because the European countries that have contributed troops to the ISAF are opposed to the idea. The US also has refused to make available its soldiers to the ISAF. The US military campaign is creating problems for the Karzai government as well as for the UN, which sponsored the Bonn conference last December that decided upon the power-sharing arrangements in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban period.

The US is now trying to wriggle out of the Urozgan predicament by compensating the heirs of the bombing victims. It is also likely take steps to ensure that the UN cannot create problems for the US in future by publicly offering a different interpretation of events, as in the case in Urozgan.

Design: Lynette Menezes

Also see: The US war on terror

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