US investigating Afghan reports of 70 civilians killed

Karzai urging more caution by West forces

By Laura King
Los Angeles Times / May 6, 2009
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KABUL, Afghanistan - The US military said yesterday that it is investigating claims by Afghan officials that as many as 70 civilians were killed amid heavy fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces in a remote western district.

Claims and counterclaims about civilian casualties have long been among the most contentious issues between the Afghan government and its Western allies. The latest reports of civilian deaths and injuries emerged as President Hamid Karzai was preparing to meet today in Washington with President Obama.

Karzai, who is campaigning for reelection in August, has used increasingly sharp language over the past year to demand that US and NATO forces use greater caution when confronting militants in populated areas.

Western military officials say the insurgents often deliberately draw coalition firepower onto civilians or exaggerate casualties to inflame public anger against coalition troops.

The top US military spokesman in Afghanistan, Army Colonel Gregory Julian, confirmed that some injured civilians had sought treatment late Monday in the Bala Baluk district in Farah Province, a swath of forbidding desert along the Iranian border. Four were treated in local hospitals, and an additional five received medical care at a US military base, American officials said.

Provincial officials, however, asserted that dozens of people were killed as they sought shelter in a compound in the village of Gerani during coalition air strikes, and that villagers were slowly digging bodies out by hand.

Hangama Saded, a member of the provincial council, said by telephone from Farah that about 70 people, including children, were thought to have been killed as they huddled together in a large mud-brick residence.

"We asked people to take videos and photos of the area and send them to us to have proof in our hands," Saded said.

Cultural sensitivities, however, might prevent photographic documentation of female corpses, she said.

In some previous disputes over civilian deaths, the emergence of cellphone videos of the dead has persuaded authorities to reexamine claims that were initially dismissed. In the best-known recent case, villagers - backed by the Afghan government, human rights groups, and the United Nations - said up to 90 people, mainly women and children, were killed last summer in US air strikes in the village of Azizabad in Herat Province.

The US military said at first that those killed in Azizabad were nearly all insurgents but later acknowledged after a high-level probe and a public outcry that 33 of the dead were civilians.

The claims of deaths in Farah Province were being aggressively investigated, the US military said, but efforts were hampered by fierce clashes and the village's isolated, inaccessible location.