Mon, Jul 02, 2007 - Page 4 News List

NATO says Afghan civilian deaths overblown

AP , KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

An investigation into US-led airstrikes that slammed into Afghan homes where Taliban fighters sought shelter found that 62 insurgents and 45 civilians were killed, two Afghan officials said yesterday.

An investigating team was sent to Helmand Province's Gereshk district, where fighting took place between insurgents and Western forces late on Friday, said Gereshk Mayor Dur Ali Shah and Mohammad Hussein Andewal, the provincial police chief.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has acknowledged some civilians were killed in the southern battle but has said the death toll was nowhere near as high as Afghan officials have claimed.

Because of the battle site's remote location, it was impossible to independently verify the casualty claims. Afghan officials said fighter jets and ground forces were still patrolling the region and that the fighting continued into Saturday.

A suicide attacker on foot blew himself up near a convoy of British forces in Gereshk district yesterday, wounding several Afghans.

The battle on Friday began when Taliban fighters tried to ambush a joint US-Afghan military convoy, then fled to Hyderabad village for cover, Helmand provincial Police Chief Mohammad Hussein said. Airstrikes then targeted the militants in the village.

Shah said late on Saturday that 50 to 60 civilians and 35 Taliban fighters had been killed but changed his casualty figures yesterday, citing the investigation.

Major John Thomas, a spokesman for ISAF, said the military had no information "to corroborate numbers that large." He said NATO would not fire on positions if it knew civilians were nearby.

"It's the enemy fighters who willingly fire when civilians are standing right next to them," he said.

Civilian deaths have infuriated Afghans. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned the forces for carelessness and viewing Afghan lives as "cheap." He has also blamed the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.

The US-led coalition said the airstrikes were in response to attacks on a joint Afghan-coalition patrol.

"It appears that ANA [Afghan National Army] and coalition forces fired at clearly identified firing positions," said Major Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. "Remains of some people who apparently were civilians were found among insurgent fighters who were killed in firing positions in a trench line."

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