HUTALA, Afghanistan – Children's hats and shoes littered a bloody field cratered by gunfire Sunday after a U.S. airstrike, aimed at a wanted Taliban (search) commander, mistakenly killed nine children in an Afghan mountain village.
The American warplane was targeting Mullah Wazir (search), once a local commander for the hard-line Islamic militia. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and a U.S. military official said Wazir was killed in the attack, but residents and local officials said Wazir escaped — or was not in the village at all.
The residents reported at least one adult man, possibly a Wazir relative, was killed along with the children.
The strike was the latest U.S. air attack to kill Afghan civilians as American-led forces hunt for remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (search) who have stepped up violence in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The United Nation's envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi (search), said he was "profoundly distressed" by the attack in the village of Hutala. The airstrike, "which follows similar incidents, adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country," Brahimi said.
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) said it fully supported fighting terrorism but urged the U.S.-led coalition to "be very careful not to repeat such tragedies."
Meanwhile, two Turkish engineers and an Afghan were kidnapped outside Kabul (search), officials said Sunday. The report follows the abduction of two Indian engineers by Taliban militants, who are increasingly targeting foreign workers and aid groups helping in the country's reconstruction.
In Hutala, a field was pockmarked by dozens of small craters from the American A-160 aircraft's guns. There were pools of blood and articles of children's clothing were strewn on the ground.
"They were just playing ball, and then the shots came down," said Hamidullah, a distraught villager who said his eight-year-old son, Habibullah, was among those killed. Like many Afghans, they only have one name.
The village lies about 100 miles southwest of Kabul, along the main road between the capital and the main southern city Kandahar, in Ghazni province, which has seen numberous Taliban attacks, including the Nov. 16 slaying of a French U.S. aid worker.
Khalilzad and U.S. Army Maj. Christopher E. West said U.S. troops went to Hutala and identified Wazir among the dead. They also discovered the bodies of the nine children.
"At the time we initiated the attack, we did not know there were children nearby," West said from the U.S. military headquarters at Bagram, north of Kabul.
Khalilzad said he was "deeply saddened" by the "tragic loss of innocent life," and had spoken to Karzai. A senior U.S. military officer and Afghan officials were meeting Sunday with the bereaved families, he said.
But Hamidullah said the man killed along with the children was a cousin of Wazir named Abdul Hamid. Another villager said Wazir had left two weeks earlier.
Jawaid Khan, secretary of Ghazni's governor, also said Wazir was not killed.
"The people there are very afraid. They have no idea why the Americans bombed their village," said Khan. He put the number of children killed at eight and said two other men were also killed.
About a dozen U.S. soldiers stood guard outside a mud house in Hutala that locals said belonged to Wazir.
West called Wazir a "known terrorist." But Wazir was not known as a major player during the regime of the hardline Islamic Taliban militia, which was ousted two years ago by U.S.-led forces.
Khalilzad said Wazir "had bragged of his personal involvement in attacks on innocent Afghan citizens." Local Afghan official Ahmad Zia Masood said that Wazir himself fired at U.S. helicopters on Friday.
West said U.S. troops had collected "extensive intelligence over an extended period of time" and located Wazir at an "isolated, rural site."
The 11,500 U.S.-led troops hunting Taliban and al-Qaida remnants often are supported by air power, and there have been a string of incidents where warplanes have mistakenly killed civilians.
By an AP count from hospitals and other reliable sources conducted in February 2002, at least 500 to 600 Afghan civilians were killed by airstrikes during the U.S.-led campaign that removed the Taliban. Since then, as American forces try to stamp out Taliban fighters, more deaths have occurred.
The worst incident was in July 2002, when Afghan officials said 48 civilians at a wedding party were killed and 117 wounded by a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship in Uruzgan province, which borders Ghazni province.
On April 9, a U.S. warplane mistakenly bombed a home, killing 11 civilians. Another air strike in Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 31 reportedly killed at least eight civilians in a house.
Taliban attacks have prompted international aid agencies to reduce operations in Afghanistan's south and east.
On Friday, men burst into the office of a Turkish construction company just outside the capital, Kabul, and abducted two Turkish workers and an Afghan one, said Nick Downie of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, which protects aid workers in the country.
Turkish and Afghan officials said Sunday the incident may not have been political in motive. In Ankara, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Dirioz said the two Turks were either abducted as part of a feud between two rival villages or went willingly to sort out the dispute.
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said the three were held by Afzal Khan, a former militia commander, over a land dispute. The Turks were involved in a project for new wells in the region. Jalali said the government was negotiating for their release and they would be freed "soon."
On Saturday, suspected Taliban kidnapped two Indian engineers working on the Kabul-Kandahar road, a reconstruction project mainly funded by the United States. The road was to be officially opened later this month. A Taliban spokesman claimed it was holding them. Taliban recently freed a Turkish engineer from the project after a month in captivity.
Taliban attacks have plagued the flagship project. Four construction workers were killed in August, and de-mining operations along the road were suspended last month after a carjacking. The Turkish engineer was abducted along the road Oct. 30, and released after one month.