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Afghans protest over wedding party bombing

Protesters said they were not calling on the U.S. to leave, but wanted officers to know that such incidents could damage relations
Protesters said they were not calling on the U.S. to leave, but wanted officers to know that such incidents could damage relations  

Staff and wires

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Some 200 Afghan men and women have taken part in a demonstration in Kabul to protest Monday's raid by U.S.-led forces on a village in southern Afghanistan in which at least 40 civilians reportedly died.

The protesters marched on the United Nations offices in the first anti-U.S.. rally in the city since the fall of the former Taliban regime last year.

Protest organizers, many of them women, were however careful to point out that they were not calling on the United States to leave Afghanistan, nor were they supporters of the Taliban.

"We condemn terrorism," the organizers said in a pamphlet. "We are not against the Americans, but it doesn't mean they should drop bombs on residents, happy ceremonies and sanctuaries instead of military targets."

"The U.S. should get through to its officers that this kind of incident could destroy relations and the trust between the two nations," the statement said.

Eyewitnesses have said the death toll from Monday's airborne raids could be as high as 130.

However, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Abdullah has said he believes about 40 people died, with another 22 being treated for injuries in a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar.

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U.S. officials have not publicly disputed the Afghan figures but say it is still too early to know exactly how many died.

"We just don't know," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark.

U.S. cautious

"We have to be very, very responsible about numbers because they have meaning and impact, so we're just trying to be very, very cautious about the numbers," she added.

U.S. investigators were continuing their inquiries Thursday at the scene of the attack, the southern Afghanistan village of Deh Rawud.

Officials say they believe a large group of guests at a wedding party were standing near an anti-aircraft artillery site when a U.S. AC-130 gunship struck it from the air, killing dozens of civilians.

The strike occurred in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, in an area known to be "of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda," said Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We had people on the ground [for the past several weeks in the area and they've been] engaged on the ground and in the air by local forces," he added.

Newbold said a coalition reconnaissance group had found a cache that included "15 tons of munitions ... including anti-aircraft weapons" about 10 miles from the scene

Monday's action, aimed at unoccupied caves, "was intended to denude the area" to prevent "Taliban individuals" from manning fighting emplacements outside, Newbold said.

Air support

The injured are being treated in hospital in Kandahar
The injured are being treated in hospital in Kandahar  

The gunship, using high accuracy munitions, fired on a total of six anti-aircraft artillery sites.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Roger King, said between 100 and 200 Special Forces were in a coordinated operation Monday in Uruzgan province, near the town of Tarin Kowt, and called in air support from B-52 bombers and AC-130s when they were fired upon.

Survivors said that members of a wedding party were firing weapons into the air in celebration at the time of the accident.

However, King ruled out celebratory fire in provoking the attack.

"Normally when you think of celebratory fire ... it's random, it's sprayed, it's not directed at a specific target," he said.

"In this instance, the people on board the aircraft felt that the weapons were tracking them and were making a sustained effort to engage them."

Officials could not describe what the AC-130 crew may have been able to see during the operation.

Sources said the crew had no way to determine if the people were civilians or enemy forces, and it is not clear if they were able to see any children.

The White House issued a statement Tuesday, saying President Bush "extends his deep condolences for the loss of innocent life" in Afghanistan.

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report




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