Afghans decry 14 civilian deaths
Officials say NATO strike missed Taliban
KABUL — Afghan officials said yesterday that an errant NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians, all of them women and children, in the southern province of Helmand.
Local officials said the strike late Saturday night was aimed at Taliban fighters and missed. NATO confirmed the operation and said it was investigating the report of casualties.
Civilian deaths have strained relations for years between the NATO-led military coalition and the Afghan government, and NATO has made efforts to reduce them.
President Hamid Karzai, who has frequently condemned NATO for civilian casualties, called the deaths in Helmand shocking. “NATO and American forces have been warned repeatedly that their arbitrary and improper operations are the causes of killing of innocent people,’’ he said.
Witnesses said an unknown number of bombs fell about 11 p.m., landing on two family compounds in the Salam Bazaar area of Nawzad district, a small farming community about 50 miles north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.
Five girls, seven boys, and two women were killed as they slept, the provincial governor’s office said in a statement. Another six people were wounded.
Grieving friends and relatives drove through the night transporting eight bodies to the provincial hospital in Lashkar Gah, a resident of the village, Haji Janan, said. The other bodies remained buried under rubble, he said.
The governor’s office released photographs of men carrying the dead children swaddled in sheets into the hospital. “We brought the dead bodies to show it to the officials, to show that the dead are innocent civilians, not the Taliban,’’ Janan said.
In a separate development yesterday, an Afghan government commission blamed regulators for financial mismanagement at the nation’s largest private bank, saying monitors should have kept Kabul Bank from making hundreds of millions in questionable loans that forced the bank into receivership.
The bank has been in turmoil since this past fall when it was discovered that shareholders — some of them relatives or backers of Karzai — had lent themselves millions to invest in luxurious mansions in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and risky prestige projects like an airline and shopping malls in Kabul. Many of the loans were undocumented, so there was no system to ensure they were paid back.
Among the bank’s politically connected shareholders and insiders was Mahmoud Karzai, the president’s brother. The commission cleared him of any blame for the losses.
Lieutenant Tyler Balzer, a spokesman for the NATO-led military coalition, said several bombs were dropped during the deadly air raid but said he could not provide more specifics until the investigation was complete.
“We are aware of the governor’s claims and there were airstrikes in the area,’’ he said, “and right now we have an assessment team on the ground working with the Afghan government.’’
Local officials said the raid came in response to an insurgent attack on a nearby US Marine base earlier in the night, but that the strike hit the wrong homes.
NATO was also investigating an air assault last week in Nuristan Province that drove out Taliban fighters after they had overrun part of a district center. A joint force of NATO soldiers and Afghan commandos called in airstrikes Wednesday when they came under fire in the district center of Do Ab. The airstrikes drove hundreds of insurgents out of the town and killed more than 10 of them, NATO said then.
But provincial officials now say that NATO helicopters also killed more than 20 police officers. Qazi Anayatullah, head of the provincial council, said that as coalition forces arrived, the Taliban fled, leaving their white flags flying over police checkpoints they had overrun. When the officers in civilian clothes reentered the checkpoints, the Taliban flags were still flying, and NATO helicopters bombed them, he said.
Civilian deaths have undermined Afghan support for the war. According to the United Nations, insurgents caused about 75 percent of all civilian casualties last year, the deadliest year for civilians in the country.
The latest episode came at an emotionally turbulent time. As images of the children killed in the Salam Bazaar attack were broadcast on television yesterday, the nation was still reeling from a suicide attack a day earlier at the governor’s compound in the northern province of Takhar. The attack killed six, including the northern region’s senior police commander, General Daoud Daoud, a revered figure from his days as an anti-Taliban fighter.
His death complicates transition efforts as NATO forces begin transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces in seven areas of the country this July. One of those areas is Mazar-i-Sharif, where Daoud was based.
In a statement yesterday, the United States Embassy in Kabul said Daoud “was in the forefront of his country’s efforts to defeat the insurgents and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.’’
His death could bolster opposition among northern leaders to Karzai’s fledgling efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.
Sensitive to that concern, the president’s spokesman, Wahid Omar, blamed foreign fighters for planning and carrying out the string of attacks that have jolted the country in recent months, trying to deflect blame from Afghan Taliban, even though the Taliban have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks.
“No one from Afghanistan carries out such attacks,’’ he said. “All evidence shows these operations are planned outside Afghanistan and led from outside Afghanistan.’’