US warplanes killed between 25 and 40 villagers and flattened houses yesterday when they bombed the home of a Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan, according to reports from an adjacent area of Pakistan.
The village of Naka, in the Afghan province of Paktika, was woken by explosions which wounded up to 60 people and destroyed as many as 25 houses, according to an administrative source in Pakistani frontier area of Waziristan quoted by Reuters.
According to the Afghan Islamic Press news agency, one of the bombed houses belonged to Maulvi Taha, a Taliban commander, but he was not at home. The news agency put the death toll at 25, with four wounded and five houses destroyed.
The news filtered into Kabul just as new pressure was put on the new interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, to ask America to stop bombing eastern Afghanistan.
Tribal allies are furious that what they say was a convoy of elders travelling to Kabul last week to support the new government was turned into charred wreckage by a US air attack. American officials say Taliban and al-Qaida leaders were in the convoy and had fired at their planes.
Six tribal leaders yesterday demanded and apparently extracted a commitment from Mr Karzai to request a halt to operations over Paktia province, which borders Paktika province. They said Mr Karzai promised to press his US allies to restrict the bombing, despite conflicting evidence that al-Qaida and Taliban members are still active in eastern Afghanistan.
The tribal leaders' spokesman, Abdul Hakim Munir, insisted that Paktia no longer harboured Islamist militants and branded the convoy attack a blunder.
The delegration accused tribal enemies of informing the Americans that al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were in the convoy.
"These were all white-bearded tribal elders who wanted to congratulate Karzai and were mistakenly bombed. America can answer about the firing by its planes," he said.
About 15 people are estimated to have died when the line of vehicles snaking through a mountain road at dusk was bombed. Survivors scrambled to boulders for cover while the jets returned, this time allegedly hitting nearby villages, raising the death toll to 65.
Mr Karzai and his ministers have been reluctant to ask the Americans to stop bombing. They say further investigation of the incident is needed. But the delegation of elders that visited Kabul yesterday clearly expected Mr Karzai to make the request today. One of the elders, Haji Saifullah, a member of the Paktia shura, or council, said: "There were no al-Qaida members among them. They were all tribal elders."
He repeated a claim that an enemy tribe contacted the US to falsely identify the convoy as belonging to al-Qaida, know ing hi-tech devastation would follow. "This is tribal hostility, not al-Qaida members."
On Wednesday the foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said that there was still a need for air strikes and singled out Paktia province as an al-Qaida base.
There are no independent accounts of the incident.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001