ORUZGAN, Afghanistan, Jan. 27
No American had visited this mountain-ringed town recently, residents said today, until early Thursday, when helicopters dangling Humvees descended from the sky and spilled shouting, shooting Special Operations forces into two small compounds, a mile and a half apart. Two hours later, 21 local soldiers were dead and 27 others had been captured and taken away.
At daybreak, when neighbors and a few who escaped the carnage ventured back to inspect the damage, they said they found the charred bodies of more than a dozen men who had been shot and burned in the rooms of one of the compounds. Townspeople said they had also found two bodies outside the compound, their hands tied behind them with strips of tough white plastic.
The Pentagon defends the raid as an appropriate military action. "We take great care to ensure we are engaging confirmed Taliban or Al Qaeda facilities," Maj. Bill Harrison, a spokesman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said today. "As a result of this mission, we detained 27 individuals, and believe that our forces engaged the intended target."
But in dozens of interviews this weekend, residents in this town about 100 miles north of Kandahar in central Afghanistan said the two-hour raid before dawn, which ended with an American plane firing at the compound, was an error.
The compound where the most people died is a former grade school that was briefly used by the Taliban late in the war, the townspeople say. More recently, it has been used as a weapons depot for a local disarmament drive.
At the scene, Ahmad Shah, a wizened farmer whose house is 100 yards from the school, said he had helped move one of the two bound bodies. He said "I never had seen anything like" the binding, adding, "It was very strong, and we couldn't open it and finally had to cut it off."
All the dead have now been buried, so their bodies were not available for examination.
During the raid, Mr. Shah said he heard people in the compound shouting: "For God's sake, do not kill us! We surrender!"
All the officials and local commanders interviewed in the area, including the provincial governor, insist that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters are no longer in the area, which has been quiet since the interim government took power in Kabul on Dec. 22. The local people expressed surprise that if the United States was worried about an arms depot, it did not first come to check out the situation, especially considering the absence of fighting in the area.
Many of the people interviewed here said they suspected that the United States had been misled by false intelligence information deliberately spread by one of the two factions in town that were vying to control weapons left behind by departing Taliban. The weapons had been collected to put them under the control of the interim government, as part of a campaign also being carried out elsewhere in the country.
Many people here suspect that in their infighting, one side or the other gave a false tip to the American forces in order to destroy its rival, only to have the Pentagon act against both compounds. Throughout the war, the Pentagon has solicited local intelligence, but much of the information is unreliable.
But the Pentagon says it has other ways of getting information, including U-2 planes and spy satellite reconnaissance photos, Predator drones and RC-135 planes that collect electronic transmissions. In this case, Major Harrison declined to say what intelligence the American forces had relied on.
The people here say there was no notice given to the people in either compound that they were under any threat. No American intelligence personnel visited the compounds before the raid, people who were in them say.
People in the town, describing the dispute between the factions, said it had been created by a recent change in governors, both of whom were appointed by Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai. It rested on who is the rightful district government chief and who has the right to collect weapons.
Each group had amassed a sizable arsenal during a government-ordered disarmament program, and in the dispute over who is truly in charge, neither side has been willing to turn over its weapons.
Sayeed Muhammad, 25, a soldier who had been posted for a month at the school, said he had wakened to the sound of gunfire shattering the windows and door of the room in which he and 11 other men were sleeping.
"There was only one gun in the room," Mr. Muhammad said, picking at a bloody bandage on his foot during an interview tonight. He said Shah Muhammad, a cousin, had grabbed the gun and started shooting from the door.
Sayeed Muhammad said the gun, an AK-47, had only four bullets. Many of the men in the room were killed almost immediately, he said.
"I jumped through the back window and felt something hit my foot as I did," he said. Outside, he said, he was blinded by the light of a big vehicle parked 50 yards away. "I ran for the gate, and I don't know how I made it out alive," he said.
Mr. Muhammad, who wears a black turban that is customary in this area and which the Taliban adopted, said there had been no Taliban or Al Qaeda in the compound. "We were working for the governor of the province and for Hamid Karzai," he said.
Jan Muhammad Khan, who was recently appointed governor of Oruzgan Province by Mr. Karzai, said in an interview on Saturday that the men in the compound had been working for him. While the Pentagon has said the raid was directed at a munitions store, Mr. Khan disputed that, saying the men at the compound had been collecting weapons left behind by departing Taliban.
Sayeed Muhammad said he had watched from a nearby mosque as the gunfire and shouting died down and a helicopter landed atop the schoolhouse, apparently to retrieve the American troops. Within minutes of the helicopter's departure, Mr. Muhammad said, a large plane fired what he believed were rockets into the compound.
The Pentagon says the munitions at the school were destroyed by fire from an AC-130U, a flying warship, but neither room in the school used to store weapons was seriously damaged. Both still held mortar rounds and cannon shells. Residents said looters had taken lighter weapons, including hundreds of AK-47's.
In the compound, two letters on Taliban letterhead were retrieved from the room where the charred bodies of compound's two commanders were found. One urges an unidentified district government chief to return AK-47's seized from someone described as "our friend." The other discusses a prisoner exchange. Neither is dated.
Among other papers retrieved from the room was a letter calling for support of the loya jirga, a tribal congress that is to meet this year.
Neighbors of the school, as well as Mr. Muhammad and another soldier who escaped from the compound, said the school had been used by local Taliban officials during their last weeks in power.
Without being told of the Taliban letters, Mr. Muhammad was asked if the Taliban had left anything behind. He pointed to the room in which the letters were found and said the Taliban had left some papers there.
When shown the letters, Mr. Muhammad and the other soldier said they predated their commanders' presence in the compound.
At dawn, people who live near the schoolhouse recalled, they had gathered in the courtyard to collect the dead, 19 in that compound.
Obiad Ullah, 37, said he had found a man named Abdul Rauf lying on a pile of stones that morning. Mr. Rauf's body was covered with blood, and his hands were bound behind him with a plastic strip.
Mr. Shah, the farmer who lives near the school, said he had found the other dead man, Shah Muhammad, lying face down near the compound's gate. One of his thigh bones was protruding from his leg, and half of one foot was missing, this witness said. His hands, too, were bound behind his body.
The 27 who were captured came from the other compound, where two people were reported killed. Muhammad Yunas, one of two men claiming to be Oruzgan's district government chief, who controlled that compound, said that after the soldiers and their captives were gone, gunfire and rockets rained from the sky, destroying the ammunition dump.
Mr. Yunas said he had found a piece of paper showing an American flag on the windshield of one of the compound's destroyed trucks. Large letters on the paper read, "God Bless America," and in one corner, someone had written: "Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc."
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