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US: Civilians probably not hit by bomb

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, July 2 (UPI) -- The United States said Tuesday that an errant satellite-guided bomb probably did not kill about 40 civilians in Uruzgan province north of Kandahar early Monday, since the bomb landed on an empty hillside.

Instead, the casualties most likely resulted from an AC-130 gunship attack on Taliban or al Qaida anti-aircraft artillery sites or from anti-aircraft shells falling to the ground, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace told reporters at a press conference.

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"That hill mass had no people on it, and the air controller on the ground believes that there was no one in that area where it impacted," Pace said.

Afghan officials and area residents said about 40 members of a wedding party were killed Monday and 100 others were wounded, according to news reports.

The Pentagon Tuesday would officially confirm no deaths and only four injuries, one of them serious: four children between the ages of 8 months and 5 years were brought by their father to the U.S. military, which flew them in a medical helicopter back to the military hospital at the Kandahar airbase.

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Also Tuesday, a team of U.S. soldiers came under attack by small arms fire on the approximately 15 mile-road between the Kandahar city hospital and the air base. One soldier was slightly injured, said Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Jeff Davis.

The soldiers did not return fire.

They had been visiting approximately 10 Afghans who checked themselves into the hospital after Monday's bombing incident.

"The purpose of the visit was to ascertain their condition and see what U.S. assistance could be offered to their medical care," Davis said.

The incident began Monday around 2 a.m. local time when a force of as many as 400 U.S. and Afghan soldiers, including two Special Forces units, were conducting reconnaissance 70 miles north of Kandahar in an area believed to be a hideout for Taliban or al Qaida fighters.

U.S. aircraft flying over the area had been targeted with anti-aircraft artillery fire several times over the preceding days, Pace said.

An AC-130 gunship providing air cover to the ground force fired on at least six sites over several miles when it came under attack by ground artillery weapons, Pace said.

It is unclear whether the AC-130 crew observed the fire and reacted in self-defense or if a soldier on the ground directed the attack against the artillery sites.

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"If a U.S. military unit is taking fire, they have the absolute right of inherent self-defense," Pace said.

Pace said there was no ground gunfight prior to the bombing.

At the same time, a B-52 bomber launched seven satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs at a cave complex believed occupied by Taliban or al Qaida fighters. One of the seven malfunctioned and fell about 3,000 yards short of the cave, hitting a hilltop.

The forward air controller on the ground that called in the B-52 strike reported the bomb fell on an unpopulated area.

A team of U.S. military and government and Afghan government officials, accompanied by media representatives, have arrived in the area where the casualties occurred.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said local villagers would be interviewed to determine what happened.

"What we do not know is information that will be gained by (talking to) non-U.S. forces," Rumsfeld said.

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