KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 7 — A flurry of terrorist attacks over the past several days, as well as the deaths of nine children Saturday in a U.S. air assault on a village where a lone Taliban terrorist was said to be hiding, have cast a jittery pall over preparations for an historic constitutional assembly scheduled to begin Wednesday.
United Nations envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, reacting with unusual sharpness, said the Saturday air attack, "which follows similar incidents, adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country." Afghan officials were more restrained in their response.
Security is already tight for the constitutional assembly, with soldiers stationed at many city intersections. Officials have vowed not to let the U.N.-mandated meeting be sabotaged by violence, but they said Sunday it may now be delayed by several days. One purported spokesman for the Taliban Islamic extremist movement told news agencies that anyone attending the assembly "deserves to die."
The violence in recent days also threatened to overshadow two milestones in the country's reconstruction and pacification: the imminent completion of the 310-mile highway from Kabul to Kandahar City, a U.S.-funded project, and the launching Sunday of a program to disarm and demobilize thousands of militia fighters in Kabul Province.
Since Thursday, a bomb planted in a bicycle in downtown Kandahar wounded 18 people; two Indian highway workers were kidnapped by reported Taliban fighters while buying chickens in a village in Zabol Province; a crew of census takers was ambushed by gunmen in remote Farah Province, leaving one dead; and two Turkish water project workers were reported missing south of Kabul.
At the same time, U.S. military officials said an American air raid over Atala Village in southern Ghazni Province Saturday inadvertently killed nine children as well as a suspected Taliban terrorist whom U.S. military forces had targeted. Officials said the man was behind a recent ground attack on a U.S. military helicopter. Provincial officials and villagers, however, disputed reports of the man's death.
The U.S. raid immediately evoked comparisons with a U.S. gunship attack in July 2002 that killed 42 villagers in Oruzgun Province, as well as an air raid last month that killed several members of a religious leader's family during a U.S.-led anti-terrorist operation in Nooristan Province.
Brahimi, the U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan, urged that lessons "be learned from this episode so it will not be repeated."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quoted on BBC Afghan language radio Sunday night as saying he was "shocked and upset" by the deaths, but both he and other Afghan officials refrained from serious criticism of the U.S. military operation.
American military officials here said the raid was based on "very complete" information that a Taliban terrorist known as Mullah Wazir was hiding in the village, and that they had no idea children were in the immediate area. They said U.S. military personnel are in the area to assist the families of the victims.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he was "deeply saddened" by the "tragic loss of innocent life." He told Afghan journalists Sunday that he had personally reviewed U.S. military aerial films of the area, and that they showed no children. He also said Wazir had boasted of killing civilians.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, the Afghan interior minister, said the children were killed "mistakenly," but he said the government had "asked for an explanation" from U.S. military authorities — who pledged to investigate — and sent a team to probe the site. Jalali, who was terse and subdued at a brief news conference, described the targeted Wazir as a "notorious" Taliban terrorist leader.
Haji Assadullah, the governor of Ghazni province, said: "It has not been ascertained if Mullah Wazir was killed or not, but the house was his," Reuters news agency reported.
A resident of the village, Hamidullah, who said his eight-year-old son, Habibullah, was among the dead, said that the man killed along with the children was a cousin of Wazir while another villager said Wazir had left the village two weeks ago, according to the Associated Press.
Jalali, the interior minister, also described in some detail the kidnapping Saturday of two Indian highway workers, who he said had left their guarded camp and visited several village markets in Zabol Province when their car was stopped by armed men. He said the Indians were taken away and several Afghans with them were freed.
"It looks like this was not a planned attack ... we are investigating it and we hope to get to the bottom of it soon," said Jalali, adding that the incident might have links to the same local Taliban commander who kidnapped a Turkish highway engineer in November. The Turk was released unharmed last week after a month in captivity and weeks of negotiations with Afghan officials.
Revived Taliban forces have staged a series of increasingly daring and frequent attacks across southeast Afghanistan in recent months and weeks, apparently attempting to sabotage the government's efforts at political and economic reconstruction and to undermine its relations with the international community. Numerous foreign aid projects have been suspended as a result of the violence.
The bicycle bomb in Kandahar, and the kidnapping of the Indian workers, followed a series of other attacks and threats by Islamic extremists, including the Nov. 16 slaying of a French woman working for the United Nations refugee agency. Also last week, a rocket landed in a field near the U.S. Embassy here, and authorities discovered a large cache of weapons and ammunition in the Kandahar prison from which 41 Taliban detainees escaped in October.
The U.N. spokesman here, Manoel de Almeida y Silva, said U.N. officials were "deeply shocked" by the Kandahar bombing and other extremist attacks. But he added that "Afghanistan is on the path of reconstruction, and Afghans, their government and their international partners will not be deterred by these despicable acts."
Over the past week, the U.N. has held relatively smooth elections across the country for candidates to the constitutional assembly, known as a loya jirga, with over 19,000 delegates participating. Officials said there have been a few incidents of militia commanders or other ineligible candidates being elected, but that they will be disqualified from attending the assembly.
However, officials said Sunday that the loya jirga will now likely be postponed by several days due to logistical issues. The constitutional assembly, a crucial step in Afghanistan's political progress that will lead to national elections next year, has already been postponed once from its original October date.
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed in the crush of violent news, the first 200 soldiers and militiamen in Kabul Province turned in their weapons Sunday to U.N. officials at a national guard base, beginning a process that will eventually demobilize tens of thousands of fighters in the area. The de-weaponizing of the Kabul area is considered crucial to pacifying and stabilizing the country.www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43239-2003Dec7.htmlE-mail this article