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Taliban claim at least 200 dead in airstrike, protests break out in Pakistan

Updated:

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ The Taliban claimed Friday at least 200 people were killed this week in an airstrike on a village, their largest casualty claim so far in the U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan. The report could not immediately be independently verified.

As the air campaign moved into its sixth day, the intensity of strikes were lighter. Warplanes fired a series of missiles before dawn Friday north of Kabul. But there were no immediate reports of attacks near other main cities Friday _ in contrast to heavy raids the night before.

Navy officials aboard the USS Enterprise in the Arabian Sea said they were halting bombing raids from the aircraft carrier because it was Friday _ the main Muslim prayer day.

In London, British Defense Minister Lewis Moonie said strikes were likely to decrease in the next few days because of the Muslim festival of Miraj al-Nabi, celebrating a mystical journey by the prophet Mohammed to heaven. The holiday is celebrated on different days around this time across the Islamic world.

``I would not be surprised if activity was much less over this weekend'' because of the religious significance, he said.

Angry demonstrations broke out in neighboring Pakistan on the first Friday since the start of the air assault. In Kabul, the Afghan capital, the preacher at a central mosque prayed that the United States would suffer the same fate as Afghanistan.

The air strikes were launched after the Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia repeatedly refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the terror strikes a month ago on the United States.

The Taliban report of 200 dead came from Zadra Azam, the deputy governor of Nangarhar province, who said an airstrike two days ago hit the village of Karam, outside the eastern city of Jalalabad.

``We're still digging bodies out of the rubble,'' Azam said, adding that villagers from nearby had rushed to help with the rescue and recovery effort.

The village is very close to the town of Darunta, about 80 miles east of Kabul, in an area where bin Laden is believed to train fighters for his al-Qaida terror network.

In addition, the Taliban's official news agency said at least 10 people were killed and several homes destroyed in Argandab, north of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Bombs also destroyed homes in Karaga, north of Kabul, the news agency said.

British officials said Taliban claims of casualties appeared to be exaggerated, based on accounts from Afghans fleeing into Pakistan. ``It's widely understood among Afghanistan refugees that there have not been so many civilian casualties,'' International Development Secretary Clare Short told a London news conference.

Short spoke several hours after the Taliban claim of casualties in Karam but did not specifically refer to that claim. It was unclear if British officials knew of the claim.

Even before the latest report, the Taliban have said dozens were killed in the U.S.-led raids that began Sunday. Casualty claims are almost impossible to verify because foreign journalists, like other non-Afghans, are barred from entering Afghanistan, and Afghan journalists are unable to move about and report freely.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asked about the Taliban claims, repeated that the U.S. strikes were not targeting civilians.

``There is no question but that when one is engaged militarily that there are going to be unintended loss of life,'' Rumsfeld said. ``And there's no question but that I and anyone involved regrets the unintended loss of life.''

``On the other hand, we know who does target civilians, and it's the terrorists that have killed thousands of Americans,'' he said.

At the Pakistani border, panicky arriving Afghan refugees reported fleeing airstrikes that hit close to populated areas.

``I have never seen such a sight. Bombs were dropping in and around the village, and there was fire and smoke everywhere,'' said Agha Jan Agha, a farmer from Kalamtar, near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. He said he walked six miles with his family before finding a car to take them to the border.

Refugees have reported civilian casualties from the bombardment, but have offered few specifics.

Pakistan's government expressed regret over civilian deaths.

``We condemn terrorism, but we feel sorrow and pain over the killing of innocent Afghans,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan told reporters. ``We have been assured again and again that only terrorists and those who provide protection to terrorists will be targeted.''

In northern Afghanistan, rebel troops and Taliban soldiers were reported to be locked in fierce fighting near the northern city and key stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif. Mohajeddin Mehdi, an official in Tajikistan affiliated with the opposition's government-in-exile, said the opposition had seized strategic points to block Taliban supply routes. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

In Pakistan, anti-U.S. protests erupted in the port city of Karachi, where thousands of demonstrators stoned police, torched cars and set ablaze a KFC, a restaurant licensed by the American fast-food chain. Police fought back with sticks and volleys of tear gas, and fired warning shots in the air.

The protests were spurred by calls from leaders of Muslim extremist Pakistani parties.

In Kabul, worshippers at the central Haji Yaqoub mosque heard fiery appeals for divine vengeance from the imam, or preacher.

``Cruel America has killed scores of our people. God must destroy those who are committing atrocities against us,'' he told several hundred worshippers. ``We pray to God that the United States should meet a fate similar to that we are suffering.''

Before dawn Friday, U.S. jets dropped three bombs in rapid succession near Kabul. Within 20 minutes another jet streaked in high, dropping two more bombs to the north, in the direction of the front line where Taliban soldiers face off against opposition troops.

The ground trembled and windows rattled in Kabul from the force of the impact.

Pakistani officials have acknowledged that U.S. planes and personnel are on the ground there as part of the American-led campaign against the Taliban and bin Laden, and say the United States had been granted use of two key bases.

But the air campaign is so controversial in Muslim Pakistan that the government publicly denied there were any American military personnel in the country.

Pakistani officials who confirmed the American presence were careful not to categorize them as military personnel, and Pakistan stressed that its territory would not be a staging ground for military strikes against neighboring Afghanistan.
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