ORUZGAN, Afghanistan — Afghan prisoners captured by American forces in two night raids here last month said today that they were beaten and abused by American soldiers, despite their protests that they supported the leader of the interim government, Hamid Karzai.
The men were among 27 Afghans who were released on Thursday after 16 days' detention in the American base in Kandahar, about 150 miles southwest of Oruzgan. The Pentagon has acknowledged that the raids were conducted in error, apparently because of flawed intelligence, and that the prisoners were neither members of Al Qaeda nor Taliban fighters. Local officials put the death toll at 21; the Pentagon says at least 15 Afghans were killed.
The accounts of harsh treatment from four of the prisoners, the district police chief among them, offer the first insights into the detention from the Afghans' point of view.
Abdul Rauf, 60, the police chief in this small mountain town, said he was beaten, kicked until his ribs cracked and punched by American soldiers when they stormed the district headquarters in the night of Jan. 23-24 and took him and his men prisoner.
An American officer apologized to him when he was released, he said, asking forgiveness and saying their capture had been a mistake.
"I can never forgive them," Mr. Rauf said in an interview today as he lay on cushions at his home, still clearly suffering from his ordeal. "Why did they bomb us? Why did they do this?"
[In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department would not comment on the complaints until the completion of an official investigation being conducted by the United States Central Command.]
United States Special Forces stormed two compounds in Oruzgan within minutes: the local school, where men from the government disarmament commission had made their base, and the district civilian and police headquarters, where 30 police guards were based and 6 men were in the jail. Both compounds had storerooms still full of weapons left behind or captured from the Taliban. The school was crowded with four- wheel-drive vehicles and a truck mounted with an antiaircraft gun.
Among the men killed in the school, survivors said today, were two of Mr. Karzai's top commanders, while in the district headquarters, two guards were killed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted last week that American forces may have killed local allies in the raid.
Despite the Afghan government's continued support for United States operations to hunt down fighters from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, local officials here said it was time for them to end the bombing and commando raids to prevent further mistakes and loss of life.
"There is no need for more raids," said Azizullah Agha, the new head of the government disarmament commission here, who lost nine members of his own family in a bombing in November. "If for example we have information that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is somewhere, I can go there myself to negotiate or send guards," he said.
"I do not know why they are making so many mistakes," said Mr. Agha, who is 58. He had accepted previous mistakes because they had been close to Taliban positions, he said. "But this latest one was a very big mistake," he continued. "There were no Al Qaeda or Taliban. There was just a commission that is working for the government, collecting weapons."
The governor of Oruzgan Province, Jan Muhammad, also expressed anger in an interview in the provincial capital, Tirin Kot. He said he had 30 soldiers from Special Forces working with him and living in his headquarters while 100 miles away other Americans were killing his commanders.
Chief Rauf said he was asleep with his guards in the district office when shouts and gunfire woke him at 3 a.m. He recognized American voices outside and went out, calling out in Pashto to the troops.
"I was shouting `Dost! Dost!' — `We are friends!' — but they were not listening," he said. "And I was telling my men that they are friends, and American soldiers came and started to beat me.
"I was down on my knees, bent over, and they kicked me in the chest. I heard my ribs crack. Then I was lying on my side and they kicked me in the back, in the kidneys, and I fainted."
He came round to find his hands tied and one of his men dead on the ground.
His men surrendered without a fight, Mr. Rauf said.
Two of his men interviewed today, Allah Noor, 40, and Ziauddin, 50, looked like the village farmers they were until they joined the police as guards after the Taliban were ousted. A third guard, Aktar Muhammad, was still in his teens.
All four said that American soldiers beat and punched them in the district headquarters before their hands and feet were bound and they were loaded on helicopters and flown to the base in Kandahar. There they were made to lie face down on a hangar floor and for the rest of the night were subjected to violent blows and kicking, they said.
"They were walking on our backs, kicking us," Mr. Rauf said. As he muttered a prayer, a soldier hit him on the back of the head, smashing his nose against the ground. His nose still bears the marks of a cut. Mr. Ziauddin, who uses only one name, was also kicked in the head, he said, and he showed a tooth loosened as his head hit the floor.
Mr. Muhammad said he was picked up and thrown on the ground three times by soldiers, until on the third time he fainted from a blow to the head.
"I was so afraid I did not expect to remain alive and see my family again," he said. In the morning he was put with the other prisoners in a large cage, with wooden bars and a canvas roof.
Two days later he was pulled out and put in solitary confinement in a metal shipping container for eight days and underwent an interrogation he described as aggressive. Two American soldiers guarded the open door and ordered him to sit on the floor and keep his eyes down.
Most of the men said the interrogation was courteous, however, and after the first day the beating stopped, possibly because they all told their interrogators they were supporters of Mr. Karzai.
At the end of the 16 days they were told they would be released and given new clothes, wool hats and boots. An American officer put his hands together in a gesture of apology as a translator told them it had been mistake.
"I am not angry with the Americans because that was a mistake," Mr. Noor said. "Someone gave them the wrong information."
Abdul Kuduz Irfani, the newly appointed district chief, said, "The prisoners are just glad to be alive."
But relatives of the dead men are angry and are demanding to know who fed the Americans the wrong information. "We are having a lot of trouble convincing them it was a mistake," he said.
No one will name any suspects, but officials here insist that despite local rivalries, no person from Oruzgan would have had the ear of the American forces to request such a raid.
"A simple apology will not solve this," Mr. Irfani said. "The Americans know who informed them, and that man is an enemy of this government and of this country."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle