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US accused of killing over 100 villagers in air strike

Fresh controversy over American bombing flared last night after Afghans claimed more than 100 people died in an air strike. US officials hotly denied that any civilians died during the attack against what it said was an al-Qaida compound from which surface-to-air missiles had been fired.
Reports from the village of Qalaye Niazi, in Paktia province, which borders Pakistan, yesterday said human remains were scattered among craters. Two days earlier, the Afghan defence minister - a leading Northern Alliance commander who wants minimal foreign military involvement in the country - called for an end to the air strikes.

The question of ongoing bombing by American forces pursuing clusters of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who have eluded them, is one of many issues confronting the man named yesterday as Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr Khalilzad, the national security council's specialist on south-west Asia, the near east and north Africa, is to be President Bush's representative to the Afghan people "as they seek to consolidate a new order [and] reconstruct their country", the US announcement of the appointment said.

Trying to hold the government together will be a key task, and the US air raids are among many issues threatening to split the interim administration.

Paktia, just south-west of the Tora Bora cave complex, is a focus of current bombing because it is a suspected hideout of any fighters, including Osama bin Laden, who may have escaped last month's US pounding.

A Qalaye Niazi villager, Janat Gul, told Reuters he was the sole person from his 24-member family to survive Sunday's pre-dawn attack by helicopters and jets. "There are no al-Qaida or Taliban people here," he insisted. Haji Saifullah, head of the tribal council, invited US forces to inspect the village, claiming 107 civilians died, including women and children.

An ammunition store destroyed in the bombing had been seized from Taliban fighters who retreated from the area nearly six weeks ago, said Mr Saifullah.

The US central command at Tampa, Florida, dismissed the reports, saying the attack was early on Saturday, not Sunday, and that two B-1B bombers and a B-52 - not helicopters - hit a known terrorist target.

"You don't have a village launching surface-to-air missiles at aircraft. You have a known al Qaida-Taliban leadership compound," said a spokesman.

The strikes set off secondary explosions consistent with stockpiled arms and ammunition but caused no civilian casualties, he said.

Mr Saifullah accused rival ethnic groups of passing "wrong information" to the US in a successful attempt to provoke an attack.

Several four-wheel-drive vehicles with US and Northern Alliance soldiers were spotted yesterday at the Tira Pass heading in the direction of the village. The Pakistani-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency said at least 92 died in the attack.

Qalaye Niazi is two miles north of the city of Gardez, capital of Paktia. US planes have made several raids in the area in the past fortnight based on intelligence that Taliban and al-Qaida remnants are hiding in the mountains.

Two of the earlier raids on eastern Afghanistan were reported to have killed more than 100 people. There are no independent accounts of these incidents, but many Afghans are convined that the dead were civilian victims of intelligence blunders.

While the interim government's defence minister, General Mohammed Fahim, wants the bombing to stop, the foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, has said that Bin Laden could still be in Afghanistan and the air campaign could continue "for as long as it takes to finish the terrorists".

The prime minister, Hamid Karzai, owes his position at the head of a stitched-together government of rival factions largely to US sponsorship and is not eager to alienate the backer on which he will almost surely continue to rely.

On his inauguration day, December 22, the US bombed what it said was a convoy of enemy fighters, but people from the area later said the group consisted of tribal elders on their way to Kabul for the ceremony.

Survivors claimed a rival group had falsely identified them as terrorists - the same claim as in Qalaye Niazi.



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