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Victims or villains? An Afghan dilemma

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KABUL, Jan 2 — They could have been villagers asleep in their beds, farmers press ganged into storing ammunition for Osama bin Laden or his Taliban protectors. They may even have been fighters.

But as an Afghan interim government struggles to win the hearts and minds of a people weary of war and portray itself as a champion of their interests, the truth of what happened in Qalaye Niazi lies buried in dusty graves.

With conflicting accounts from the U.S. military and villagers who survived, one thing is certain—targeting the enemy from the air in Afghanistan is not an exact science.

"If Taliban or al Qaeda fighters come to a village and say they want to store their ammunition, what are the villagers going to say?" said one Afghan veteran, who asked not to be identified.

"Are they going to say no to men with guns, or to men with money?"

Just what happened in Qalaye Niazi is unclear.

Survivors say that in the early hours of Sunday, as the village slept, at least one U.S. jet, a B-52 bomber and two helicopters swooped on the cluster of baked-mud homes and obliterated them, killing as many as 107 people.

Villagers say the bodies of 50 were buried in a nearby graveyard. The rest, they add, were nomad visitors whose bodies had been returned to their homes in the nearby mountains for burial in their family graves.

For the Pentagon, the targets of the attack were Taliban or al Qaeda fighters loyal to the man blamed for the September 11 attacks that killed almost 3,300 Americans and other nationals.

These fighters, it adds, were hiding out in the village, or using it to store their ammunition.

The confusion underlines the difficulties of conducting a war in a land where alliances shift, intelligence conflicts and locals are afraid.

Witnesses say nothing remains of the village but a fresh patch of rocky desert, craters, remnants of mud walls and scraps of flesh and hair. The rest has simply vanished.

Villagers say their home was a farming community but admit ammunition—taken from the vanquished Taliban—had been stored in the village.

U.S. officials say a surface-to-air missile was fired from the village, hardly something farmers would know how to use.

Cruise missiles

The village lies in eastern Paktia province, no stranger to attacks since the mountainous town of Khost was the target of cruise missiles in 1998 when the United States sought to destroy bin Laden training camps in the area after linking him to bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bin Laden himself is no stranger to many villagers.

After the attacks, the Saudi-born millionaire toured villages in a huge convoy—almost like a politician on the campaign trail, shaking hands, apologising for damage, raising morale and explaining that all was in the cause of Islam. Among a deeply religious people, such a message could receive a warm reception.

"He knows everyone," said Afghan analyst and writer Ahmed Rashid, a recognised authority on Afghanistan. "The area has been one of his main bases since he returned to Afghanistan in 1996."

Several raids have targeted Paktia.

One of the most deadly took place just two days before the December 22 inauguration of the interim government in Kabul, when U.S. jets struck a convoy that survivors said was carrying tribal elders and guests en route to the ceremony in Kabul. The jets, they said, had been called in by a tribal foe.

The survivors spoke of 65 victims.

They described racing for cover among rocks and trees by the side of the road, watching as companions disappeared in the flames of their four-wheel pickups—the cars favoured by both the Taliban and the al Qaeda.

"It seems the Americans are operating almost completely on their own," said Rashid, questioning why the U.S. forces were not doing more to turn the Northern Alliance fighters into a full-fledged army able to cooperate and aid on the ground.

"There doesn't seem to be much cooperation between the Alliance and the U.S. air command," he added.

In fact, if the numbers of those killed in these two attacks are accurate, they are among some of the most deadly of the war that the United States launched on October 7.

Early in the war, the Taliban, then still in power, said a village near the eastern city of Jalalabad was demolished, killing dozens. Another village near Kandahar was destroyed, and again dozens were killed, the Taliban and villagers said.

Those numbers could have been exaggerated by the Taliban.

These days there are no Taliban left to inflate figures—just distraught and confused villagers who may have had little choice but to help the Taliban, out of fear or old loyalties.

"It's very difficult for the villagers to refuse," said Rashid.

One retired soldier agreed. "That's war," he said. "They have a target, and, until they get to it, the civilians will be the casualties. That's the way it is."