U.S. 'Justified' in Afghan Air Raid

The U.S. government was justified in an air raid that likely killed innocent Afghan civilians because the strike was aimed at enemy targets where ``bad guys'' were hiding, deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Monday.

Afghan officials say 48 Afghan civilians were killed and 117 others were injured July 1 when a U.S. AC-130 gunship fired on several villages in Uruzgan province. Among the dead were 25 people at a wedding celebration, Afghans said.

U.S. officials say the attack was launched after forces reported coming under anti-aircraft fire around the villages. A joint U.S.-Afghan investigation is underway.

``We are always concerned when we believe we may have killed innocent people and we think that happened and we regret that,'' Wolfowitz said during a visit to Bagram air base, headquarters for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. ``We have no regrets about going in after bad guys and there were some there.''

The attack angered many Afghans because it followed a series of mistaken raids and friendly fire incidents, most of which occurred in the ethnic Pashtun areas of the south.

Since the attacks, U.S. forces have been fired on several times in different parts of Afghanistan. It was not clear if the attacks on U.S. troops are linked to the airstrike.

In response to the civilian deaths, the governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, demanded that U.S. troops seek local permission before striking at suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban units in the south. The United States opposes the idea.

Sherzai also wants a 500-man rapid reaction force to hunt down Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives and a 3,000-strong unit to patrol part of the borders with Pakistan and Iran.

Some southern governors were meeting Monday to discuss Sherzai's plan, which could undermine a U.S.-backed plan to build a national army controlled by President Hamid Karzai's government.

Wolfowitz was due to meet Karzai in the Afghan capital of Kabul later Monday.

In Bagram, Wolfowitz spoke to U.S. soldiers, whom he thanked for their bravery and skill.

He said ``maybe half'' of the top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders had been caught and ``the ones that are still left ... are hard to find.''

``We will be here as long as it takes to do the job,'' Wolfowitz said.