US gunships killed at least ten people in eastern Afghanistan as they flew to the aid of a platoon of Australian soldiers that had come under fire from fleeing al-Qaeda and Taleban forces.
Local sources in Afghanistan claimed that the gunships rounded on the village of Bul Khil in the Sabri district of Khost Province, about 19 miles from the state capital, before unleashing a volley of missiles and gunfire. They said that the villagers' gunfire had not been hostile but merely a group of men firing weapons in the air to celebrate a family wedding.
Later the American aircraft and helicopter gunships were still patrolling the area, scattering terrified villagers into the cover of surrounding countryside, the sources said.
Allied forces have been on alert in the region for much of the past week because it is feared that sizeable groups of terrorist fighters are still hiding in the area.
Khost was a stronghold of the ousted Taleban regime and of al-Qaeda. The state's airport is being used as a base for allied forces.
Major Bryan Hilferty, a US Army spokesman in Afghanistan, confirmed that a US AC130 gunship had opened fire in a rural area of Khost after an Australian patrol had come under fire. He could not confirm, however, whether the mission had resulted in any civilian casualties.
"An AC130 was sent in; it fired at an uninhabited ridge line," Major Hilferty said at Bagram air base, the Afghan headquarters of the Amercian-led military coalition in the country. He agreed, however, that allied forces did not know who the target was, but merely that the US military had responded to what was thought to have been hostile gunfire. "Do I know if they were al-Qaeda? I don't know," Major Hilferty said, "but I have a right to self-defence if I am attacked."
A spokesman for US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, said that the US forces had reacted reasonably to a real threat. "Coalition forces were fired upon and then actively pursued," he said. "That kind of behaviour is not indicative of a wedding."
A thorough investigation of the claims that civilians had been killed in the attack would not be possible for the foreseeable future, he said, adding: "There is still an active firefight going on in the area."
Pentagon sources said that it was common for local sources to report civilian casualties to Afghan and Pakistani news services when an operation by coalition forces began. It was an increasingly common tactic by terrorist forces, they claimed.
In March the Pentagon released a report detailing ten cases of so-called friendly fire that had caused civilian casualties, fatalities and destroyed property. The report confirmed earlier evidence that a raid on two suspected Taleban compounds in January, during which 16 innocent people were killed and 27 captured, had been a mistake. The 27 were later released and returned to their village at Khas Uruzgan, in the Hazar Qadam Valley.
The United States was accused last December of bombing in error a convoy of Afghan elders travelling from Khost to Kabul for the inauguration of the country's interim administration. According to local reports, more than 60 people died when 14 vehicles were destroyed 15 miles south of Gardez. The Pentagon said that those killed were Taleban or al-Qaeda leaders.