WASHINGTON — Taliban terror leaders who had gathered for a funeral — and were secretly being watched by an eye-in-the-sky American drone — dodged assassination because U.S. rules of engagement bar attacks in cemeteries, the New York Post reported Wednesday.
The paper cited an NBC News report that said U.S. intelligence officers in Afghanistan are fuming about the recent lost opportunity for an easy kill of Taliban honchos packed in tight formation for the burial.
The officers were receiving live shots from a drone flying undetected above the gathering, the Post reported.
“We were so excited. I came rushing in with the picture,” one U.S. Army officer told NBC.
But excitement quickly turned to frustration because the rules of engagement on the ground in Afghanistan blocks the U.S. from mounting a missile or bomb strike in a cemetery, according to the NBC report.
The grainy black and white photo shows what NBC says are some 190 Taliban militants standing in several rows near a vehicle in an open area of land. Gunsight-like brackets were positioned over the group in the photo.
It was not clear when the photo was taken nor where the gathering took place.
The Post reported that military experts say that rules of engagement are constantly adjusted on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, depending on the severity of the threat posed by the enemy.
In Iraq, gun battles have raged inside cemeteries in Fallujah, and once-off-limits mosques are now subject to U.S. searches, the Post wrote.
Contacted by The Associated Press, the U.S. military said Wednesday it is looking into the unauthorized release of the photo.
Lt. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman with the U.S. military in Kabul, said the photograph was released to the network by someone who did not have the clearance to hand it out.
“It is an operational security issue and the photo was released at an inappropriate level,” Lawrence said. “Inquiries are being made into how it was released.”
NATO spokesman James Appathurai declined to comment on the incident.
“I haven’t seen the story and I can’t comment on U.S. rules of engagement,” he told a news conference in Brussels, Belgium.
Lawrence declined to provide further details.
Taliban militants this year have been waging their bloodiest campaign of violence since their 2001 ouster from power in the U.S.-led invasion launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. military has previously used Predator drones with deadly effect, firing one missile into a Pakistani tribal area near the Afghan border in January in a failed bid to kill al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. The strike killed at least 13 civilians.
Information from wire services was used in this report.