By Pauline Jelinek
WASHINGTON – Three American soldiers were killed and 19 wounded in Afghanistan today when a bomb launched from an Air Force B-52 bomber missed its target. The friendly-fire accident produced the worst U.S. casualty toll of the war.
The Pentagon initially reported that two were killed. Spokeswoman Victoria Clarke later said one of the injured soldiers had died en route to a hospital. She had no details on the seriousness of the other injuries.
“These were U.S. special forces that died,” she said, adding that five Afghan troops also were killed.
The accident raised to four the number of Americans killed in combat in Afghanistan. Four others died in accidents.
Clarke said the incident occurred north of Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold. That is where opposition forces – assisted by small numbers of U.S. special operations troops – are trying to overthrow the besieged former rulers of the country.
The munition dropped by the B-52 was a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb called JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition – and was meant to hit Taliban troops, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush “regrets the loss of life and wishes the injured a full and speedy recovery.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are going out to them and to their families,” Clarke told a Pentagon briefing. “And it just underscores what we don’t say often enough around here – that every single day there are men and women willing to put their necks on the line and put themselves in grave danger, and we appreciate what they do.”
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appearing with Clarke, conveyed the joint staff’s sympathy for the families of the victims.
“These men died as heroes and were wounded as heroes,” he said.
The Pentagon provided few details about the circumstances of the accident. It was not clear whether the bomb’s guidance system malfunctioned or human error was responsible.
“We’re still trying to get information about what happened,” Clarke said.
Stufflebeem said the U.S. soldiers killed and wounded had called in the B-52 strike as Afghan opposition forces were fighting Taliban troops. He said the bomb landed about 100 yards from the U.S. troops, but he was not certain the exact location of the intended target. To be safe, a person should be at least 1,300 yards away from the explosion of a bomb that size, he said.
“A 2,000-pound weapon is a devastating weapon,” he said.
The troops were hit at about 9:30 p.m. PST Tuesday (10 a.m. local time), Clarke said.
Stufflebeem said Marines based south of Kandahar rushed to the scene and evacuated the casualties. A combat search-and-rescue team based in Pakistan also responded, he said.
Two main groups of anti-Taliban forces are pressing toward Kandahar as recently deployed Marines operate within striking distance to the south of the city.
The opposition forces included those of Hamid Karzai, who has just been named head of the provisional government in Afghanistan. Karzai told Britain’s Channel 4 News that he was safe.
Some casualties were evacuated to a Marine base in southern Afghanistan for transfer to another, undisclosed, medical facility and others went directly to the facility, said Capt. Stewart Upton, a public affairs officer at the base. About 20 Afghan troops were treated at the Marines’ base, he said.
The deaths bring to four the number of Americans killed inside Afghanistan in the two-month war. CIA paramilitary Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed Nov. 25 in a prisoner uprising while questioning forces captured in the fighting.
Five U.S. soldiers were seriously wounded when another JDAM bomb went astray while warplanes were helping put down the uprising in which Spann was killed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has pointed out in recent days that the United States has entered a more dangerous phase in the war to root out the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.
“It is a very complicated, untidy circumstance, and it makes it a dangerous and difficult task,” Rumsfeld said Tuesday of fighting around the country.
The base where the casualties were taken is temporary home for some 1,300 U.S. Marines, along with British and Australians, and was set up about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar to put more pressure on Taliban holding out in the city. Rumsfeld said the Marines probably would not be involved in attacking the city, but are blocking Taliban forces from leaving or entering Kandahar.
Some of the American casualties included special operations soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 5th Special Forces Group, said a spokesman at Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters for all Army special forces.
The names of the killed and wounded were being withheld pending notification of their families.
American planes have been bombing Kandahar to help anti-Taliban attackers, while Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has instructed his followers not to surrender.
The United States is focusing its bombing on Kandahar and the mountainous area near the Khyber Pass south of Jalalabad, where it is believed bin Laden and his top lieutenants are hiding in a complex of caves and tunnels.
In addition to Spann, four Americans, all military personnel, have been killed in connection with the fighting in Afghanistan. All died in accidents outside the country, two in a helicopter crash in Pakistan.
The Pentagon said a U.S. soldier was wounded in the fighting near Kandahar Tuesday. The special forces soldier was shot under the collarbone, but his injuries were not life-threatening, defense officials said. The soldier was working with one of the anti-Taliban groups surrounding Kandahar, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The wounded soldier was evacuated from Afghanistan and was in stable condition at a military hospital, a U.S. Central Command statement said.
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