Village hit, scores dead, Afghans say; U.S. denies it©Los Angeles Times
December 2, 2001
JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Villagers from the remote Afghan outpost of Kama Ado say they don't know how far it is to Tora Bora -- only that it's a 10-hour hike to the nest of caves and trenches that Osama bin Laden adopted as a hideout and headquarters.
On Saturday, that might have been too near. As the United States redoubled its assault on Tora Bora with overnight bombing raids, scores of villagers from Kama Ado and other sleepy hamlets in the foothills of the White Mountain range in eastern Afghanistan were believed killed, Afghan officials and witnesses said.
Local officials have said for more than a week that hundreds of die-hard followers of bin Laden are holed up in Tora Bora and that the elusive terror mastermind could be among them. On Thursday, Kama Ado village elders had made the long, dusty trek by foot to Jalalabad, the nearest major city, where they told reporters they wanted the world to know they weren't terrorists.
At the governor's palace, the men pleaded for an end to nighttime attacks by U.S. bombers. Their livestock had been killed, they said, and their water supply ruined.
But none of their people had died.
"We are poor people," Lalgul, a 45-year-old farmer from a nearby village, said Saturday. He said he had raced to Kama Ado when he heard the cries of survivors. "We can barely feed ourselves. This must have been a mistake."
Late Saturday, the commander of the military in Jalalabad said that at least 20 people were dead in the dawn raid on Kama Ado. Witnesses who traveled to the hospital in Jalalabad said more might have died. Meanwhile, the provincial security chief said 50 people were killed in a nighttime bomb strike on the village of Khan-i-Muirajuddin.
An elder from the village of Zamer Khel also reported that scores of his people were killed when warplanes bombed the nearby house of a low-ranking Taliban official. And five people were reported dead in bombing attacks on Agam.
The deaths were impossible to confirm, and Defense Department officials on Saturday denied involvement in the Kama Ado casualties.
"We've checked the imagery, and the closest airstrikes were 20 miles from Kama Ado," Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner said in Washington. "It's a false story."
But in a dingy hospital ward, a skinny man named Khalil stared at the ceiling from his iron cot, bloody rags at his side. That he is still alive, he said, is a trick of timing: When the bombs fell, he had slipped outside to relieve himself. He watched his house collapse. He was a father and a husband. He had 12 relatives in the world. All of them died Saturday, he said.
"I am the only one left now," said Khalil, 25, and like many Afghans, uses only one name. His eyes welled with tears. "All my family is gone. The village is no more."
Built by rebel Afghan soldiers during the war against the former Soviet Union, the honeycomb of tunnels and chambers historically has stood immune to attack.
This weekend, a delegation from the Nangarhar provincial government reportedly ventured out to the cave complex, met with the suspected terrorists and asked them to leave. The inhabitants of Tora Bora sent word back: They'll think it over until Monday, then issue a reply.
When it comes to Tora Bora, the commanders have something to lose: They have urged the United States to pump up their opposition forces with donations of guns and money. With the support of the United States, they've said, they could hunt down bin Laden.
"I fully support the bombing," commander Haji Mohammed Zaman said Saturday. But in the next breath, he changed his mind: "I contacted U.S. authorities and said, "Your bombing is off the mark. Stop the bombing.' "
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