U.S.-Afghan Team Investigating Oruzgan Incident
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 3, 2002 A team of American and Afghan investigators has arrived at the site of an alleged friendly fire accident in Oruzgan Province.
Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, operations director for the Joint Staff, told Pentagon reporters today that the team arrived there earlier today, but that he has heard nothing of their findings yet.
Reports that the team had arrived yesterday were premature, a DoD spokesman said.
"They've just begun their inquiry," Newbold said. "So it'll take some time for them to develop richness of detail to know precisely what happened."
He said U.S. military medical teams had been in the area offering assistance at local hospitals, but that Afghan medical assets had everything under control.
Newbold didn't confirm media reports that 40 civilians had been killed in an errant bomb strike on an Afghan wedding in the province July 1, but he acknowledged at least 21 civilians are in hospitals in Kandahar and Bagram. The general had no information on the individuals' conditions, but said none had life-threatening injuries.
U.S. officials have said coalition forces were operating in Oruzgan July 1 looking for suspected Taliban members believed to be hiding in the area. The region is mainly Pashtun, the single largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the one from which most of the Taliban came.
Officials said July 2 that U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships had struck several ground targets the previous day, including anti-aircraft artillery sites that were engaging the aircraft over Oruzgan Province.
U.S. forces had been operating in the area for a few weeks and had been fired upon on several different occasions. The night of the incident, defense officials said, pilots flying missions in the area believed they were being tracked and engaged by anti-aircraft artillery.
Newbold said there had been sporadic ground engagements in that area over several weeks, and that "virtually any time an aircraft was flown over there, it had fire directed at it."
He said a 15-ton cache of munitions, including anti- aircraft weapons, has been found about 10 miles from the July 1 strikes and that an unknown number of detainees were taken in connection with that day's activities.
U.S. military spokesmen have said repeatedly that the reported enemy fire could not have been mistaken for celebratory gunfire, as several sources have suggested.
"There is a difference between firing that goes in celebration and clearly directed fire of a different caliber, different mix of munitions," Newbold said. "And that's apparent to our crews."
The fact-finding team in Oruzgan will attempt to verify or disprove that Taliban holdouts were placing artillery emplacements on top of homes and public buildings.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke stressed to reporters that it's too early for anyone to jump to conclusions.
"I think it is way too soon to make any assumptions at all," she said. But, she added, the Taliban and al Qaeda have been known to use such tactics to provide a disincentive for coalition forces to attack them for fear of hurting civilians.
In another development, a U.S. Army officer was shot in the foot when he and a group of soldiers were ambushed during a visit to a Kandahar hospital. Newbold said he had no other details on that incident.