Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Telegraph | News | Hold fire at Taliban fighters: they are attending a funeral

Telegraph | News | Hold fire at Taliban fighters: they are attending a funeral:

"Hold fire at Taliban fighters: they are attending a funeral
By Philip Sherwell

The American intelligence officers monitoring the satellite feed from an unmanned spy plane at their base in Afghanistan could hardly believe their eyes.

An estimated 190 Taliban fighters were lined up in tightly packed formation, captured in the crosshairs of a gun sight — as the picture shows.

Men at funeral
The Predator drone traps 190 men in its sights before they disperse

Rarely in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan are so many Taliban fighters gathered together on open land. The target was too tempting to ignore: all it required was authorisation for the Predator drone to launch an air strike.

'We were so excited. I came rushing in with the picture,' an army officer told an NBC television journalist who obtained the grainy black-and-white photograph taken in July. But then, to his frustration, they were told that the United States military's rules of engagement made an attack impossible because the men were attending a funeral in a cemetery.

The officers then watched the satellite footage of the fighters splintering into small groups — not big enough for the drone to target — and heading back to their mountain redoubts. They were convinced that prominent Taliban leaders had been present.

At a time when British-led Nato forces are incurring heavy casualties as the resurgent Taliban pursues a guerrilla war on several fronts, the decision has caused amazement in America and been criticised by relatives of US troops killed in Afghanistan.

For many, it also brought back memories of the decision not to order an air strike when a Predator drone tracked Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and Osama bin Laden ally, as he left Kabul in a convoy in late 2001 and took cover in a building with 100 fighters.

The disbelief was heightened as the picture of the assembled Taliban fighters appeared on an NBC news blog just two days after a suicide bomber killed six people at the funeral of the governor of Paktia province, who was assassinated by the Taliban."

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