KABUL, Afghanistan - In a sharp criticism of U.S. bombing, a U.N. representative said yesterday that dozens of civilians were killed Saturday in three waves of attacks by B-52 bombers on an eastern Afghanistan village.
Although it was based upon unverified allegations, the U.N. criticism came amid a growing number of calls by Afghan leaders for the United States to limit its aerial attacks if it cannot prevent harm to civilians.
Meanwhile, Afghan officials said a breakthrough was near on final terms of surrender for deposed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and 1,500 of his fighters.
U.S. officials said they doubted a surrender was imminent and were adamant that no deal had been offered to the second most wanted man after Osama bin Laden.
The governor of the southern city of Kandahar, Gul Agha, said Omar had been talking with a grand council of tribal leaders. If Omar does not agree to be arrested, the Baghran region north of Kandahar, where he is believed to be hiding, faces possible bombing by U.S.-led warplanes, said Afghan and Pakistani military officials.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended U.S. bombing decisions and said, "I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history in which there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences."
The U.N. criticism came from Stephanie Bunker, a U.N. spokeswoman in Kabul. She said predawn attacks Saturday on the village of Qalaye Niazi, just north of the city of Gardez in Paktia province, had killed at least 52 civilians, including women and children.
Many of the victims perished inside five large residential compounds that were devastated by the air strike, Bunker said.
The United Nations' information, she added, was based on one credible source from "someone from the area" of the village. She said U.N. staffers had not visited the village to verify the allegations.
She said Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, plans to discuss the bombing with U.S. military officials.
"The U.N. has repeatedly called on the coalition forces to protect all civilians in the military campaign," Bunker said. "[Brahimi] is very concerned."
After reports earlier this week that as many as 100 civilians were killed in Qalaye Niazi, U.S. officials said the bombing was justified because the village reportedly contained an arms depot.
Senior Afghan intelligence officials said the village was a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban stragglers. Another U.S. air strike last week in the region killed Qari Ahmadullah, a former Taliban intelligence chief known for torturing prisoners, according to the officials.
Bunker insisted that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were never in the village.
The U.S. military has said that it strikes only legitimate military targets, but sentiment is building in Afghanistan for the United States to restrict the bombing.
Interim government leader Hamid Karzai has promised some tribal leaders that he will urge the United States to halt bombing in their regions.
Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said that "nobody wants to see a single civilian death." But he said U.S. war planners had shown "care and attentiveness" in selecting targets and had tried to use laser-guided weapons specifically designed to limit collateral damage.
He noted three December incidents in which "questions have been raised" about civilian casualties and said that, in each case, American planes had struck at military targets verified by more than one intelligence source.
In the attack cited by the United Nations, he said, the U.S. military spotted "multiple secondary explosions" - perhaps from ammunition hidden on the ground.
Rumsfeld has said that America's foes have exaggerated the extent of civilian deaths.
After several days of no bombing, U.S. warplanes struck a "fairly extensive" al-Qaeda compound near the eastern town of Khost, Gen. Richard Myers said at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Pakistani officials said FBI agents had begun questioning the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan about bin Laden's whereabouts and his possible contacts with former Taliban leaders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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