WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- U.S. airstrikes against targets near Herat, Afghanistan, scattered cluster bombs over a civilian village in the area, U.N. officials said on Wednesday.
The village, called Shaker Qala, sits in between Herat and a military facility of the ruling Taliban militia, where U.S. bombs also struck a hospital and a mosque on the base during airstrikes that began Monday, U.N. officials said.
Daniel Kelly, head of the United Nations Mine Action Program in Afghanistan, said panicked Shaker Qala residents came to U.N. demining offices Tuesday morning to say that unexploded bombs littered village streets.
"They begged us to come and start clearing because they were very, very scared," Kelly said, adding that there were unconfirmed reports of up to nine civilians killed either by the attack or bombs left on the ground.
Kelly stressed that his offices did not have clear information about how many cluster bombs were dropped during the attack. But he said a typical cluster bomb holds about 200 individual explosives about the size of a soft drink can, called bomblets.
After release from an outer shell, the bomblets drop by parachute over a wide area and are designed to kill troops, pierce armored vehicles and destroy buildings. Normally, about 10 to 20 percent of the bomblets do not explode on impact and instead effectively become landmines, Kelly said, potentially leaving dozens of unexploded bomblets in a civilian area.
Kelly said U.N. deminers were in the process of finding and marking unexploded bomblets in the village and hoped to get information from the Pentagon about the specific type of device used.
But currently, Kelly's staff is untrained on how best to handle such explosives. Kelly said the Pentagon had not yet been in touch with U.N. officials about the Herat attacks but that he remained "optimistic" about getting useful information.
The cluster bomb strike marks the first highly visible use of indiscriminate weapons near civilian areas since the United States and Britain launched joint attacks against the Taliban and forces associated with suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden Oct. 7.
In Washington, the Pentagon has said it is strictly targeting Taliban military installations and bin Laden's alleged terrorist training camps while acknowledging some civilian casualties due to errant bombs.
Taliban officials in Islamabad say the United States is deliberately targeting civilians.
A U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. strikes appeared to be carefully targeted on military and suspected terrorist sites.
And the target in the Herat attack appeared to be the military base. Still, Kelly, formerly a major in the Canadian army, said the use of cluster bombs on a military target so close to a civilian area was inappropriate.
"It's not a precision weapon," Kelly said of the cluster bombs used in the attack. "It's definitely not an appropriate weapon for this village."
U.N. officials also voiced concern about the destruction of the military hospital, saying such sites deserve humanitarian consideration.
"A hospital is a hospital," said Stephanie Bunker, a U.N. spokeswoman.
U.N. humanitarian officials here have been guarded in their statements about the U.S. bombing campaign, calling on all sides in the conflict to respect human rights and refusing to join appeals for a halt to the airstrikes. But frustration was visible among U.N. officials Wednesday with news of the village bombing along with a worsening refugee situation as the campaign continues without a clear end in sight.
U.N. officials say up to 80 percent of the population in Afghan cities like Herat, Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad have fled fighting and headed either for rural areas or onto refugee camps along Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan, where perhaps as many as 10,000 Afghans are massed without food, water or shelter.
Kelly said cluster bombs, if used more widely by the United States in Afghanistan, could posed a grave threat to refugees who may stumble on to unexploded bomblets while moving through unfamiliar areas.
Kelly said unexploded bomblets were even more deadly than the millions of landmines and unexploded artillery shells that already cover 734 million meters of Afghanistan, the most heavily mined country in the world after two decades of warfare.
"Nobody blows an arm or a leg off," Kelly said of bomblet victims. "They get killed."
The latest crisis in Afghanistan began last month with events in America. On Sept. 11, hijackers overtook four U.S. airliners. Two jets struck the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York, leveling both. A third plane plowed through a wall at the Pentagon. A fourth, believed to be headed for a target in Washington, crashed in Pennsylvania.
The White House immediately named Saudi dissident bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996, as the prime suspect behind the attacks and ordered the ruling Taliban militia to hand him over along with the top lieutenants in his terrorist organization, al Qaida.
The Taliban refused, creating a tense military standoff that led to the U.S. airstrikes and ongoing ground attacks, which are expected to continue.