PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan - The allegation that US bombers hit a column of tribal elders on their way to the inauguration of Afghanistan's new government Saturday was not the first time US forces have been accused of - and have denied - attacking the wrong people.
Residents of Pul-e-Khumri, a strategic crossroads town in northern Afghanistan, awoke 10 days ago to the sound of warplanes roaring across the sky.
That seemed strange. The Taliban had been driven out a month earlier, and Pul-e-Khumri had been in the hands of the US-backed Northern Alliance ever since.
So why would the Americans want to attack?
From accounts of the people who live here, dozens of people died, including 15 civilians, before the inhabitants of Pul-e-Khumri got an answer.
A former governor named Sayed Jaffar had marched his troops on the town in an effort to retake power from the Northern Alliance. And somehow, it seemed, US airstrikes had been called in to support Jaffar's attack.
The Northern Alliance alleges that Jaffar succeeded in duping the Americans into believing Al Qaeda soldiers were holed up in the town. The Pentagon denies airstrikes ever took place.
But people here insist they saw American planes attack. As a result, in their eyes, the US forces have been transformed from liberators into troublemakers.
If nothing else, the story of Pul-e-Khumri illustrates how tricky it will be for the interim Afghan government to keep the peace in a war-ravaged land of ambitious warlords and heavily armed militias, where heavy fighting can break out at any time.
Assuming the locals saw what they insist they saw, Pul-e-Khumri also provides a warning to would-be international peacekeepers about how easy it is to be deceived and manipulated in Afghanistan's minefield of shifting allegiances, ethnic distrust, and tribal rivalries.
This could be a particularly important lesson for the United States, whose pursuit of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden has led to strikes against other wrong targets, fueling Afghanistan's already high sensitivity about foreign troops.
The bombing here apparently began several weeks after the Taliban fled Pul-e-Khumri, located at the crossroads of two main highways 130 miles north of Kabul, the capital. Residents started finding leaflets outside their homes from Jaffar, who had ruled as the town's governor until 1996, when the Taliban drove him out.
The leaflets exhorted townspeople to take up arms and oust the governor installed by the Northern Alliance, Maulovi Zia Hollaq. The Americans, the leaflets said, ''are with us.''
The leaflets played on ethnic and religious tensions already seething in Pul-e-Khumri. The town is populated by Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, and Uzbeks. Hollaq is a Tajik and a Sunni Muslim; Jaffar is a leader of the Ismaili tribe of the Hazaras, a Shi'ite Muslim people. The Pashtuns mainly supported the Taliban, but joined the Northern Alliance when the militia fled.
What happened next is a matter of dispute.
Townspeople say Jaffar managed to convince US special forces troops in the area that Pul-e-Khumri was a nest of Al Qaeda fighters, prompting the Americans to call in an air raid. Other reports have suggested that the warplanes prevented Jaffar's militia from attacking Pul-e-Khumri.
Whatever the case, residents here say it is beyond doubt that US planes bombed Northern Alliance military positions on Mount Kishlaq-e-Bamba, which overlooks the town, killing four alliance soldiers and destroying a tank.
They say that Jaffar's troops, which numbered somewhere between 500 and 2,000, then attacked. The fighting reportedly was heavy but brief - Northern Alliance forces poured in from surrounding areas, quickly driving out Jaffar's men.
A surrender deal collapsed when Jaffar fled the area. Fifteen alliance soldiers, 14 of Jaffar's troops, and 15 civilians died, according to Mohammad Yasin, a doctor at a local hospital.
''People didn't know know why the Americans were bombing the government forces,'' he said. ''Jaffar wanted people to think the Americans were on his side, and it worked.''
Northern Alliance commanders and local officials initially accused the United States of supporting Jaffar. But they subsequently decided that the Americans, preoccupied with their pursuit of Al Qaeda, had been fooled.
''Sayed Jaffar tricked them into thinking that there is Al Qaeda in Pul-e-Khumri,'' said Haidar, an official in the regional government who goes by one name. ''We were very angry at the Americans.''
It could not be determined whether Jaffar indeed had access to US troops. Local commanders said his hastily abandoned base outside town bore numerous signs that American forces had been present - supplies, military rations, and a US military jeep that had been covered in a parachute. Townspeople said American special forces had been with the warlord for some time prior to his assault.
Haidar said a helicopter had landed and taken off after the fighting waned, probably leaving with the US troops.
However it unfolded, people who described the bombing said it had left residents here increasingly wary of outsiders - even ones who came to Afghanistan for a purpose locals supported.
That attitude is not hard to find in this country, which has a long history of foreign invaders. After US warplanes and special forces had helped him drive Al Qaeda fighters from their stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, an alliance commander named Abdul Khan said to an American visitor:
''Thank you very much. When you leave Afghanistan, please take your troops with you.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Compan