KAKARAK, Afghanistan Villagers said a U.S. plane suddenly blasted away at them as they were celebrating a coming summer wedding in the pre-dawn coolness, dancing and singing in a pool of illumination from a tractor's headlights. Survivors said some people died on the spot, others fled into the darkness.
The villagers in this narrow valley told of running for their lives through rice and corn fields as U.S. aircraft appeared to chase them, firing bullets around them. Terrified children took shelter in groves of trees, survivors said.
is burning with anger. The Americans should be put on trial... If someone handed
over the whole of Afghanistan to me, it would be no compensation for this.
Groom whose wedding party was attacked
In Kabul, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said 44 people were killed and 120 wounded in Monday's raid on a half-dozen villages here in Uruzgan province about 175 miles southwest of the capital.
Maj. Gary Tallman, a U.S. spokesman with a joint Afghan-American investigating commission visiting the region, said an anti-aircraft artillery piece was firing on the American plane from inside the walled compound where the villagers said the wedding party was held.
Tallman said U.S. aircraft had flown over the area hourly for two days before the Monday attack and each time the anti-aircraft gun opened fire from inside the compound.
"For 48 hours our guys were watching them fire," Tallman said, adding that the anti-aircraft battery inside the compound was coordinating with other batteries in the region. "These guns were talking with each other."
Tallman acknowledged investigators Wednesday had found no wreckage of the gun when they visited the area, but said the compound had been identified by U.S. troops on the ground and verified by global positioning satellites and lasers.
Visiting U.S. officers scraped blood samples into plastic bottles and picked up shell casings while a military photographer took pictures as evidence.
U.S. officials have said American forces were attacking a legitimate target in the area using a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 gunship. Pentagon officials said it appeared gunfire, rather than an errant bomb, was responsible for the deaths. AC-130s are heavily armed with a variety of weapons but do not carry air-to-surface missiles.
Villagers said 25 of the dead, all members of a single extended family, were attending a party at the home of Mohammed Sherif, brother of one of President Hamid Karzai's close allies, to celebrate the marriage of Mohammed Sherif's son, Abdul Malik, which was to have occurred this week.
As villagers watch behind, the groom, Abdul Malik, 22, points to where his friends
died outside the home of his father Mohammed Sherif where his engagement party
was being held in the early hours of July 1, in Kakarak, Afghanistan Wednesday,
July 3, 2002. Villagers said a U.S. plane rocketed the compound Monday, killing
at least 40 partygoers. By tradition, neither Abdul Malik nor his fiancee was
present and both escaped injury. Mohammed Sherif, however, was among the dead.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
By tradition, neither Abdul Malik nor his fiance was present and both escaped injury. Mohammed Sherif was killed.
Although Afghans often fire weapons at such festivities, survivors insisted there had been no shooting for several hours before the raid. They said they could hear the sound of U.S. aircraft overhead but paid no attention because such overflights are common.
"The first rocket hit the women's section," said Ahmed Jan Agha, who was playing a traditional Afghan drum during the party. "The second rocket hit the men's section. Then everybody started running. The airplanes were shooting rockets at the people running away. They were chasing us."
AC-130 gunships are not equipped with rockets, but to those coming under fire from its cannons and howitzers the weapons might appear to be rockets.
There was no evidence on the ground to indicate what type of weapons were fired.
Agha said he could not see the planes because it was dark and had no idea how many took part in the attack. He said survivors hid in the nearby orchards and fields while the attack continued for about four hours.
"I was standing here and the airplane came over us," said Ghulam Jan Agha, 25, his wounded arm bandaged. "It was normal for us so we didn't run" until the explosions began.
When the planes were gone, Agha said American and Afghan troops entered the village, set in a narrow valley between two rocky mountain ranges.
"They told everybody to stay inside their homes," Agha said of the Americans. "They only allowed the injured to leave." The Americans departed about noon, he said. That's when the Afghans started burying their dead.
At the nearby village of Shartogai, 20-year-old Mohiuddin said he was sleeping outdoors when he was awakened by thunderous explosions. He saw aircraft lights and began running through a cornfield into a grove of trees where he found several children hiding from the attack.
He said the planes fired on the grove. One tree was cut in half and others showed what appeared to be damage from ordnance.
"Bullets hit all around me," he said. "I was lucky to be alive."
Abdul Ghaffari, 30, showed journalists dozens of what appeared to be blast craters, some three feet across. He said a few people in his village were injured but no one died.
"Americans can see even small things," he said. "Why couldn't they see it wasn't al-Qaida? It was just women and children running."
At Mohammed Sherif's compound, there were two gaping holes in the roof of the house. The mud walls facing the inside of the compound were pockmarked by shrapnel, and shards of metal were scattered through the yard. Dried blood and bits of human remains littered the area.
Forty pairs of shoes still sat awaiting owners at the front door of the house. Afghan tradition requires visitors to remove footwear before entering. Nearby lay a pile of women's clothing. A small boy stood weeping in front of it.
Next door, several angry Afghans pointed to flesh and bloodstains mixed in with straw.
"My heart is burning with anger," said Abdul Malik, who plans to go ahead with his wedding. "The Americans should be put on trial."
He angrily denied that there were al-Qaida or Taliban fugitives in his village.
"They say they were looking for al-Qaida," said Abdul Malik, who stood with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. "But did they find any dead bodies of al-Qaida people here? We are all the right-hand men of Hamid Karzai and we support his government."
He said no one had offered any compensation for his family's loss.
"If someone handed over the whole of Afghanistan to me, it would be no compensation for this," he muttered.
In Kabul, Abdullah, the foreign minister, said the attack could lead to a "war atmosphere" in a country trying to rebuild after a generation of armed conflict.
"Afghans thought the war is over," Abdullah told The Associated Press. "But this situation when civilians are killed again creates war atmosphere in the country...The issue is that this incident has to be investigated in a proper way. We don't want this to grow among people."
© 2002 The Associated Press