US general sorry for Afghan deaths

AP, PATROL BASE PUL-I-ALAM, AFGHANISTAN

Sun, Jun 10, 2012 - Page 5

The top commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan has issued a somber apology in an eastern province where US officials say 18 civilians — half of them children — were killed in a coalition airstrike this week.

US Marine General John Allen spent several hours on Friday with local Afghans to express his regrets about Wednesday’s raid to capture a Taliban operative in Baraki Barak district of Logar Province.

“We take these deaths very seriously and I grieve with their families,” Allen told the provincial governor. “I have children of my own, and I feel the pain of this.”

The US-led coalition issued a statement saying that it had completed its initial assessment of the operation and confirmed that “in addition to the insurgents killed during the operation, it’s also responsible for the unintended, but nonetheless tragic, death of Afghan civilians.” Nighttime raids on militants taking cover in villages are a major irritant in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the international military coalition. Karzai says the raids put civilians at risk while US military officials say they are key to capturing Taliban.

Allen met first with Provincial Governor Mohammad Tahir Sabari to offer his apology and then moved to a conference room where about 35 people — relatives of the victims, members of the provincial council, Afghan army and police officials and members of parliament — listened stone-faced as Allen repeated his apology.

The governor said that the residents of Logar want the military to take punitive action against those responsible for the deaths.

“We are accepting his apology, but the people who did this — whether they were foreigners or Afghans — should be punished,” the governor said. “If they are not punished, the apology means nothing and there will be no result.”

A deal signed in April was supposed to resolve the controversy surrounding night raids by putting the Afghan government in charge of such operations. Afghan troops were involved in the operation in Logar, but Karzai has put the blame squarely on the international coalition, condemning its actions and calling for it to give a fuller account of how small children were killed.

An Afghan doctor who examined the bodies said villagers told him that a group of Taliban fighters had decided to spend the night in the house because people there were celebrating a marriage and the militants thought the wedding would provide them cover. When coalition troops advanced on the house, they called for civilians to come out, but the insurgents did not allow them to leave, Dr Wali Wakil said.

Allen said the US-Afghan force called in an airstrike after taking fire and that the troops did not know civilians were inside.

Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed according to UN statistics.

The number of Afghan civilians killed dropped 36 percent in the first four months of this year compared with last year — a promising trend though the UN emphasizes that too many civilians are being caught up in the violence.

Anti-government forces, including the Taliban and other militants, were responsible for 79 percent of civilian casualties in the first four months of this year, according to the UN, Afghan and foreign forces were responsible for 9 percent.