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Afghan President Assails U.S.-Led Airstrike
23. August 2008, 10:43

By CARLOTTA GALL, The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned on Saturday a coalition airstrike that he said killed up to 95 Afghan civilians — including 50 children — in a village in western Afghanistan on Friday, and said his government would be announcing initiatives to prevent such heavy loss of civilian life in the future.

“Afghanistan takes every necessary measure to avoid and stop such tragic accidents happening in the future and Afghan initiatives for avoiding loss of civilian lives will soon be announced,” he said.

Government officials who traveled to the village of Azizabad in Herat Province on Saturday said the death toll had risen to 95 from 76, making it one of the deadliest bombing strikes on civilians in six years of the war.

The account by Afghan officials conflicted with that of the United States military, which said Friday that coalition forces had come under attack and had called in airstrikes that killed 25 militants, including a Taliban leader, and five civilians. On Saturday, the military said it was investigating the episode.

“Coalition forces are aware of allegations that the engagement in the Shindand District of Herat Province Friday may have resulted in civilian casualties,” a statement issued from Bagram air base said. “All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives. An investigation has been directed.”

The tensions between Afghan officials and the coalition are rising amid an increase in Taliban attacks recently.

The airstrike in Herat was the second time in six weeks that Mr. Karzai had condemned the coalition for strikes that he said had caused civilian casualties, and represented a growing frustration among Afghan officials at the high civilian toll from American-led operations and the failure of American commanders to address Afghan concerns.

He criticized an airstrike on July 6 that killed 27 people of a wedding party, most of them women and children, including the bride, in eastern Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, said civilians, including children, were brought to a provincial hospital in the town of Jalalabad. The American military is still investigating that episode, and has not acknowledged that civilians had been killed.

Mr. Karzai’s announcement of new initiatives to put an end to the high casualties from military operation was a sign of growing frustration, the presidential spokesman, Mr. Hamidzada, said. He said previous requests to American forces for greater care concerning civilian casualties had had little effect. He said civilian casualties had been declining over the past several months but that the recent airstrikes had reversed that trend.

“This puts us in a very difficult position,” said one government official, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “It provides propaganda to the Taliban and if they don’t take responsibility, it actually helps the Taliban.”

Another Afghan official said the government would demand broader, strategic-level cooperation on military operations. There have also been calls among members of the Afghan Parliament and Western analysts to bring Special Forces, who have often been involved in calling in airstrikes on civilians, under stricter constraints.

After the Afghan government said Friday that more than 70 civilians had been killed, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the commander of coalition forces, ordered an investigation into the episode, the public affairs officer, First Lt. Richard K. Ulsh, said.

Mr. Karzai has also sent a delegation comprising the minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Nematullah Shahrani, and a number of parliamentarians to the region. The governor and police chief of Herat Province were already visiting the village on Saturday.

Colonel Rauf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the police chief of the western region, emphatically denied that there were any Taliban in the village at the time of the strikes. “There were no Taliban,” he said by telephone. “There is no evidence to show there were Taliban there that night,” he said.

A presidential aide said that both the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, had also reported from the region that there were no Taliban present in the village that night. The Afghan National Army, whose commandos along with American Special Forces trainers called in the strikes, were unable to clarify their original claim, he said. A spokesman for the Afghan Army refused to comment on Saturday.

“Shindand is a difficult area,” the aide said. “You cannot say there are no Taliban at all, but were they in that village at that time?” he asked.

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