PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The first four confirmed civilian deaths since the start of U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan were employees of a United Nations mine-clearing project - men working for an agency dedicated to removing the deadly aftermath of earlier wars who became victims of the latest one.
"We have lost 30 workers in the last decade on minefields, but this is the first time we have lost people in the office. This is the tragedy of war," said a sad and weary-looking Syed Ahmad Farid Elmi, acting director of Afghan Technical Consultants, or ATC.
A twist making the deaths even more painful, friends said, is that the tower 200 yards away that is believed to have been the U.S. target was not a Taliban transmission facility but a defunct radio broadcasting station.
Washington insists airstrikes on Afghanistan are meticulously targeted at terrorist and military assets. But, as officials acknowledged yesterday, mistakes are made.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed regret for the deaths of four Afghans who worked for a United Nations-funded mine-clearing group but said he did not know if they were killed by U.S. weapons. Civilian casualties are inevitable, he said.
International employees of U.N. projects were evacuated from Afghanistan soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and ATC had put more than 1,000 of its 1,200 Afghan employees on mandatory unpaid leave once it appeared that the United States might retaliate in Afghanistan.
But security guards, supervisors and technical staff members were needed in 11 offices in Afghanistan to protect millions of dollars worth of de-mining equipment, field radios and vehicles essential for removing mines.
The staffers had agreed to stay on, believing that their job was too important to abandon.