WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that it is "unfortunate" that more than a dozen Afghan fighters were killed by Army Special Forces last month in a nighttime attack on what U.S. troops thought were al-Qaida or Taliban compounds.
But he insisted that the raid, which targeted two enclaves in the Hazar Qadam Valley on the night of Jan. 23, was "no mistake" because the Americans fired in self-defense after fighters in one of the compounds began shooting at them.
Afghans in the other compound did not open fire and more than two dozen were taken into custody without loss of life, according to Rumsfeld.
"The forces that went in, in the instances where they were not fired on, they did not use lethal force," he said. "In instances where they were fired upon, they did use lethal force, which is exactly what their rules of engagement provide.
"They used good judgment throughout the process," he said.
Immediately after the raid, Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials described it as a successful step in the campaign to ferret out rogue forces. The 27 men taken into custody for interrogation included several senior al-Qaida or Taliban leaders, they suggested at the time.
The United States has since released the detainees, saying they were wrongly captured. Senior U.S. officials have said CIA operatives paid $1,000 or more to each family that lost a relative in the incident. And unofficial apologies have been offered to victims' relatives, officials said.
Villagers say those killed and captured were partisans of a local anti-Taliban commander who supported the U.S.-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai. They claim that some had died in their beds while others were handcuffed with heavy plastic strips and then beaten by American soldiers.
On Thursday, Rumsfeld confirmed that the dead were not connected to terrorists or the deposed Taliban regime. But he denied that prisoners were beaten or killed after being handcuffed.
Some may have been wounded or injured while being subdued before being handcuffed, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also participated in Thursday's briefing to announce preliminary results of an investigation into the incident.
Rumsfeld rejected a suggestion that the Afghans who were killed were innocent victims.
"Let's not call them innocents. We don't know quite what they were. They were people who fired on our forces," he said.
Between 14 and 21 Afghan fighters were killed and a number wounded in the firefight. One American soldier suffered a minor ankle injury.
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