Three Americans killed in Afghanistan when bomb meant for Taliban troops misses target

Wednesday, December 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Three U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed and 19 wounded in Afghanistan Wednesday when a U.S. bomb missed its Taliban target. The bomb, carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives, landed about 100 yards from the soldiers' position north of Kandahar, where the Taliban is making its last stand against Afghan opposition forces.

Pentagon officials said they could not immediately explain what went wrong in the deadliest ``friendly fire'' accident of the war. Whatever the cause, it illustrated the danger inherent in the kind of support U.S. forces are providing to Afghan fighters: calling in airstrikes on nearby enemy positions.

``This is one of the potentially most hazardous type of missions that we use as a military tactic,'' said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered an investigation.

``In every conflict there are unexpected, unintended deaths,'' Rumsfeld said in an interview for CNN's ``Larry King Live.'' ``And it is a shame, but it happens.''

Five Afghan fighters also were killed in Wednesday's incident and an undetermined number were wounded.

The Pentagon identified those killed as Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Watauga, Tenn.; Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory, 32, of Cheshire, Mass.; and Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of California. All were members of the Army's 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.

All casualties were evacuated from the scene, first to a U.S. Marine base south of Kandahar and then out of Afghanistan.

Hamid Karzai, the southern Pashtun leader and newly designated head of the provisional government in Afghanistan, was in the area where the bomb landed but was not seriously wounded, Pentagon officials said.

``I, along with the rest of American, grieve for the loss of life in Afghanistan,'' President Bush said during an Oval Office appearance. ``I want the families to know that they died for a noble and just cause.''

The Pentagon initially reported two were killed. A third died en route to a hospital. Officials said they had no information on the seriousness of the injuries or how many were Army or Air Force.

All 22 were described as special operations forces, but officials would not say whether they were Green Berets, Rangers, or other kinds of special operations troops. It appeared likely most were Green Berets.

The deaths bring to four the number of Americans killed inside Afghanistan in the two-month war. CIA officer Johnny ``Mike'' Spann was killed Nov. 25 in a prison uprising while questioning forces captured in the fighting.

Several hundred U.S. special operations troops are in Afghanistan to assist the Afghan opposition forces. The Pentagon has credited them with helping turn the tide against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan last month by enabling more precise and effective U.S. bombing; in the south they are heavily engaged in aiding a collection of anti-Taliban forces in a fierce fight for control of Kandahar.

U.S. officials familiar with the evolving battle for Kandahar said it appeared that the opposition forces were too few to initiate a final, climactic assault on the Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts inside the city. Nonetheless it remains the Pentagon's strategy to let the opposition forces take the lead on the ground, rather than send in the Marines or other U.S. ground troops to finish the fight.

Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said at a Pentagon news conference that the U.S. casualties Wednesday are a reminder of military members' willingness to risk their lives in fighting an unconventional war triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks.

``We did not ask for this war,'' she said. ``We did not start this war. And every casualty rests at the feet of the al-Qaida and the Taliban.''

Stufflebeem said it would take a few days to sort out what happened.

A forward air controller among the U.S. troops involved in the incident called for close air support and an Air Force B-52 bomber responded by launching a bomb known as a Joint Direct Attack Munition, he said.

The bomb is guided by a satellite navigation system and is considered one of the most accurate weapons in the U.S. arsenal. It was used for the first time in combat in Kosovo in 1999.

Stufflebeem and other Pentagon officials said investigators will try to determine whether the bomb missed the intended target because of mechanical or human error.

``A 2,000-pound weapon is a devastating weapon,'' he said. ``As a pilot, I can do everything perfectly with a perfect weapon system, and still cannot account for every weapon going exactly where it's supposed to go. And that's just a fact of unfortunate life here in this case.''

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.

Some casualties were taken to the Marine base and then flown by C-130 transport to another, undisclosed, medical facility while 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 United States is focusing its bombing on Kandahar and the mountainous area near the Khyber Pass south of Jalalabad, where it is believed Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants are hiding in a complex of caves and tunnels.