WASHINGTON -- Taliban forces in Afghanistan may be hiding in residential areas to shield themselves from airstrikes, a senior military officer said Tuesday as the Pentagon acknowledged that an errant 1,000-pound bomb damaged an Afghan senior citizens' center.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has seen anecdotal evidence of the Taliban using residential areas to shield military troops and equipment. He attributed the tactic to the Taliban's realization that troops in the field or at military installations are vulnerable to punishing attacks by American warplanes.
On Tuesday, the Defense Department admitted two instances where bombs missed their targets and hit civilian areas.
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, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. The intended target was a vehicle storage building at an army barracks approximately 300 feet from the home. Preliminary indications are that the weapon's guidance system malfunctioned, she said.
Clarke said she was not certain whether the 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.''
Earlier Sunday, Clarke said, a Navy F-14 Tomcat dropped two 500-pound bombs that mistakenly hit a residential area northwest of Kabul, the Afghan capital. 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.
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 on 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-Qaida 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-Qaida are dispersing what's left of their forces ''to save them.''
He said he did not know how many al-Qaida training camps had been hit, but British officials said Tuesday that nine had been destroyed.
''There aren't going to be any camps that we're going to allow them to use, and when we find them, we'll strike them,'' Stufflebeem said.
Stufflebeem also cast doubt on the possibility of ending the air campaign before winter. ''We don't think that's realistic,'' he said.
The Pentagon also disclosed new details about a mishap during Saturday's commando raids into Afghanistan, in which an airfield was seized and documents taken from a Taliban compound that included a residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
An Army MH-47 special operations helicopter struck an unknown barrier while it was taking off from Afghanistan after the raid, shearing off its front landing gear, Clarke said. It continued the flight without incident and returned safely to an undisclosed base. No one aboard was injured, she said.
The chopper's wheels were displayed on television by the Taliban, which claimed to have shot down an American helicopter and foiled Saturday's raid.
MH-47 helicopters are flown by the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which specializes in low-level night operations in support of Army Rangers and Special Forces soldiers. The Pentagon acknowledged that Rangers and other special operations forces were involved in Saturday's raids, but it had not specifically mentioned the 160th, whose soldiers call themselves ''night stalkers.''
The Pentagon also disclosed that on Saturday a U.S. helicopter that had picked up a crippled Army Black Hawk helicopter that had crashed hours earlier in Pakistan came under hostile fire while refueling at a Pakistani airfield. Clarke would not say where the chopper was when it met gunfire. She said it aborted the refueling, returned fire and left the area. There were no U.S. casualties, she said.
Clarke said a subsequent effort to recover the crippled Black Hawk was under way on Tuesday.
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