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Afghan official: U.S. strike hits tribal delegates

Pentagon source says convoy was 'valid target'

One of the vehicles destroyed in the U.S. airstrike.  

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A convoy destroyed in a U.S. airstrike in eastern Afghanistan was carrying delegates to Kabul for Saturday's swearing in of the country's interim government, according to a member of the new Afghan administration.

Yunis Qanuni, the new Afghan interior minister, said that tribal delegates were part of the convoy, which the Pentagon said was destroyed in the airstrike. Qanuni called the incident "a misunderstanding."

But a senior Pentagon official said Saturday that the convoy "was a valid target, and the U.S. stands behind it."

The strike took place Friday night near Khowst, a town southwest of Tora Bora. The Pentagon had said the convoy was carrying al Qaeda or Taliban leaders.

When asked about the new interior minister's report, Lt. Col. Martin Compton of the U.S. Central Command said, "We are still looking into it."

CNN's Bob Franken reports the U.S. military will use new bombs on caves and tunnels (December 21)

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In addition, Maj. Brad Lowell, U.S. Central Command spokesman, said that two shoulder-launched missiles were fired from within the convoy at U.S. aircraft during the airstrike.

"None of the planes involved were ever in danger of being hit by the missiles," Lowell said.

Lowell denied reports that a ground team is being sent to investigate the convoy attack.

"Aerial imaging and ground intelligence provided more than enough information to confirm the convoy was a legitimate target," said Lowell. "There is no additional investigation being conducted. We are confident this was a legitimate military target."

One senior Pentagon official said that military officials believe that some misinformation has been disseminated by those in Afghanistan still sympathetic to the Taliban. The official pointed out that pockets of resistance flourish in the region near Khowst.

Speaking Friday at the Pentagon, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the area around Khowst has been hit previously because al Qaeda training camps are there.

"I'd like not to address the specific indicators that caused us to strike that convoy, but the intelligence we gathered at the time indicated that this was in fact leadership, and we struck the leadership," he said.

AC-130 gunships and fighter jets attacked the convoy of 10 to 12 vehicles. The compound from which the convoy left also was destroyed, Pace said.

Pentagon: New weapon for tunnels

The Pentagon also announced that a new high-tech, bunker-busting bomb will be sent to Afghanistan. The laser-guided bomb is a "thermobaric" weapon, a high-temperature, high-pressure explosive that the Pentagon said is more effective against underground caves and tunnels.

Ten of the bunker-busting bombs are being sent to Afghanistan. The weapon uses a new class of fuel-rich explosive in its warhead that releases energy over a longer period of time than conventional explosives, allowing for a longer period of high pressure inside a confined space and creating more destruction.

"It's something that we clearly have a need for in Afghanistan, and they're on their way over there," said Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

Known as the BLU-118B, the new warhead is fitted onto the BLU-109, a 2,000-pound air-launched bomb, and Air Force F-15E fighter jets will launch the weapon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday that "hundreds" more troops will be joining the forces searching caves in the Tora Bora region for al Qaeda fighters. Until now, anti-Taliban Afghan fighters and a limited number of U.S. Special Forces have conducted the searches.

Rumsfeld declined to say whether the additional troops would be Marines. Two U.S. military sources said that up to 500 Marines could be ready as soon as this weekend to begin hunting the Tora Bora caves.

"Whatever is needed will be sent, and it won't be just U.S.," Rumsfeld said. "It'll be coalition forces."

Rumsfeld also said that the whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remain uncertain but warned against drawing any conclusions.

"There's a truth, a truism in the intelligence world that is appropriate to the question of where is bin Laden," Rumsfeld said. "And it is the following -- that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

On Saturday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told China Central Television that he believes there is a "great possibility" bin Laden is dead as a result of the bombardment of the Tora Bora region. Musharraf also said he was "reasonably sure" bin Laden was not in Pakistan.

"He is not in Pakistan, of that we are reasonably sure, but we cannot be 100 percent sure," he added.

Another suspected al Qaeda member has been taken into custody at the U.S. Marine base at Kandahar airport, bringing the number of detained al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to 16, Pentagon and military officials said Saturday.

Pentagon officials also said there were no planned bombings expected Saturday, unless a specific target emerged.

In Kandahar, U.S. Marines had cleared a runway at the airport to 10,000 feet, making it ready to receive some of the larger aircraft used by the military.

Marines also were clearing land mines in the area but cautioned that it could take as long as a year to remove all the hidden ordnance.

New government installed

Afghanistan's interim government was sworn in Saturday, joining together members of the country's various factions and bringing an official end to five years of Taliban rule.

Rebuilding the conflict-riddled nation remains a daunting task for the new administration despite international backing and financial support.

Once the government is in place, written and oral understandings would be worked out to deal with any issues that arise, said Rumsfeld, when asked what effect a new Afghan government would have on the U.S. military.

The Pentagon has received "all kinds of assurances" that the new government shares the U.S. goal to deal with the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, he added.

"And the only thing that will have changed is that you've now got the interim government and the coalition forces with the same goal," Rumsfeld said, "but it will require interaction between the two of them because there will be a government for the first time in place of the Taliban."

CNN Producer Barbara Starr and Correspondents Bill Hemmer and Harris Whitbeck contributed to this report.


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