Residential Areas May House Taliban Forces

WASHINGTON?Taliban forces in Afghanistan may be hiding in residential areas, aware of the U.S. military?s hesitancy to bomb where civilians might be hit, a senior military officer said Tuesday.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has seen anecdotal evidence of such a Taliban tactic, which he attributed to their realization that troops in the field or at military installations are vulnerable to attacks by American warplanes.

U.S. airstrikes continued Tuesday with about the same intensity as the previous day, in which about 60 carrier based strike aircraft, 10 long range bombers and 10 land based strike aircraft hit 11 planned target areas, officials said.

Air Force F-16G fighters entered the fray for the first time Monday, a senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A pair of F-16Gs, equipped with advanced navigation and targeting systems that enable precision strikes at night, flew missions from bases in the Persian Gulf.

Stufflebeem said U.S. airstrikes have hit every known training camp of the al Qaeda terrorist ring that is the ultimate target of allied military, financial and diplomatic pressure, and that bombing has eliminated most of the ruling Taliban regime’s air defenses and communications. As a result, he said, the Taliban and al Qaeda are dispersing what?s left of their forces ?to save them.?

Stufflebeem also cast doubt on the possibility of ending the air campaign before winter.

?We don’t think that’s realistic,? he said.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly through 17 days of bombing in Afghanistan that care is taken to avoid striking targets that may result in inadvertent civilian casualties. But Tuesday the Pentagon acknowledged two instances over the weekend in which errant bombs apparently hit civilian areas.

On Sunday morning, Afghanistan time, a Navy F-14 Tomcat dropped two 500 pound bombs that mistakenly hit a residential area northwest of Kabul, the Afghan capital, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told a news conference. The intended targets were military vehicles parked about one-half mile away. She said she did not know how many people may have been hurt or killed.

In the second instance, late Sunday afternoon, a Navy F/A 18 Hornet dropped a 1,000 pound bomb in an open field near a senior citizens home outside the western city of Herat, Clarke said. The intended target was a vehicle storage building at an army barracks approximately 300 feet from the facility. Preliminary indications are that the weapon’s guidance system malfunctioned, she said.

Clarke said she was not certain whether the second incident corresponded to one reported by the United Nations, which said U.S. bombs hit a military hospital near Herat. The Taliban had said a strike Monday hit a Herat hospital and killed at least 100 people. U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said it was not clear whether the military hospital was in use and she had no information on casualties.

?As we always say, we regret any loss of civilian life,? she said. ?U.S. forces are intentionally striking only military and terrorist targets. We take great care in our targeting process to avoid civilian casualties.?