Luke Harding in Islamabad
Wednesday October 10, 2001
The deaths of four UN security guards near Kabul during the second night of bombing in Afghanistan presented the White House yesterday with a public relations disaster.
The UN yesterday confirmed the guards were civilians, the first such casualties of America's new war on terrorism.
The men were asleep in a ground-floor room of the Afghan Technical Consultancy (ATC), Afghanistan's biggest mine-clearing agency. The co-ordinates of the UN office had reportedly been passed to the US military two weeks ago but at 4.50am yesterday a Tomahawk cruise missile smashed into the building, turning it into rubble.
"They died on the spot. They found only one leg from four people, nothing else," said Fazel Karim Fazel, head of the Afghan mine-clearing agency Omar. "It makes me angry. We have been working for ten years. We were doing a dangerous job. We were facing all these dangers all the time. We never expected good people would be killed like this. The families don't even get to see the bodies of their loved ones."
The ATC office was hit during Monday's airstrikes, in which 15 cruise missiles were dropped on targets in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. The strikes were less severe than those on Sunday.
The Tomahawk missile that killed the men in the village of Yaka Toot, two miles east of Kabul, was probably destined for a short-wave radio mast 50 metres away.
The head of the UN office in Pakistan issued a strongly worded rebuke calling for the protection of "innocent citizens" yesterday. Stephanie Bunker said: "People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms."
She added: "All four died on the spot. Pieces of their bodies are still to be recovered from the wreckage."
The Pentagon said it was saddened by any loss of life, but stressed that most of its targets were away from civilian centres.
Targets in Monday night's raids included the airport in Kabul and a television transmission tower. Soon after US jets pounded Kandahar yesterday in the first daylight attack of the campaign, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the number of Afghans killed had risen to at least 24.
Mullah Zaeef said Afghanistan - which lost 2m people during the Soviet occupation - was prepared to sacrifice another 2m to defend itself against American terrorism.
The ambassador said he had spoken to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, and confirmed that he had survived an attack on his house in Kandahar. Mullah Omar apparently left 15 minutes before missiles destroyed his office on Sunday. Osama bin Laden was also alive.
Mullah Zaeef said he had not been in contact with Bin Laden, and hinted that he might have gone missing again. "We can't find out where he is in Afghanistan," he said.
Taliban officials inside the country shrugged off the US strikes, and claimed there had been little significant damage.
In addition to the Pentagon's expressions of regret, US military planners are now likely to mount an investigation into why the offices of a UN agency in Kabul suffered an embarrassing direct hit.
The Guardian has learned that all UN bodies in Afghanistan gave satellite co-ordinates to their head office in Islamabad on September 28, assuming these would be passed on to the Pentagon. It is not clear whether they were, but UN sources said the location of their offices was "well-known".
All international UN staff left Afghanistan last month. But local Afghan staff decided to carry on working, after concluding they were not at risk. "It was assumed they were safe where they were," Ms Bunker said. "Otherwise, they would have been relocated for sure."
The brother of one of the dead guards yesterday visited the wreckage of the ATC office early yesterday."My brother is buried under there," a weeping Mohamed Afzl said. "What can we do? Our lives are ruined."
ATC employs some 1,000 Afghan staff, 50 of whom have been killed trying to remove mines left by the Soviets.
As the US began a third night of bombing, Kabul residents prepared for another sleepless night amid explosions and the rattle of anti-aircraft guns.
Several left the capital yesterday, including Adam Khan, a farmer who fled with his family of five on a truck piled high with belongings. They had been sleeping in their basement during Monday's attacks, he said. "All night the women and children were crying," he added. "They were very worried - scared."
"How long more do the Americans want us to suffer?" an anguished Kabul man said. "We can't sleep... we can't go to mosques to worship."