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Karzai criticizes US, NATO

Says forces killing Afghan civilians in careless operations

KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai accused NATO and US-led troops yesterday of carelessly killing scores of Afghan civilians and warned that the fight against resurgent Taliban militants could fail unless foreign forces show more restraint.

"Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such," Karzai said in a rebuke that drew an acknowledgment from NATO that it must "do better."

In the past 10 days, more than 90 civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery fire targeting Taliban insurgents, Karzai said. The mounting toll is sapping the authority of the Western-backed Afghan president, who has pleaded repeatedly with US and NATO commanders to consult Afghan authorities during operations and show more restraint.

"Several times in the last year, the Afghan government tried to prevent civilian casualties, but our innocent people are becoming victims of careless operations of NATO and international forces," Karzai said at a news conference in his Kabul palace.

The casualties Karzai listed bring the number of civilians killed in NATO or US-led operations this year to 211, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and foreign officials and witnesses.

That tops the 172 civilians killed in militant attacks.

"If NATO forces want to be successful in their fight against terrorism and in bringing security to Afghanistan, they should coordinate with the Afghan government, no matter if the operation is small or big," Karzai said in a mixture of English and his native Pashto.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, responded contritely.

"President Karzai has a right to be disappointed and angry over the scale of civilian casualties in the last few days," said Nick Lunt, ISAF spokesman. "We need to do better."

Foreign commanders insist they take great care to avoid civilian deaths while trying to beat back the Taliban so that Karzai's frail government can deliver services to the impoverished south and east.

Both US and NATO forces, however, rely heavily on devastating air power. That helps minimize foreign troop casualties while inflicting heavy losses on militants -- but also regularly harms innocents.

"Every single ISAF commander knows and says that we can do our job here if we have the consent of the people. But unlike the Taliban, we do not set out to cause civilian casualties, and that is a critical difference," Lunt said.

Police on Friday said a NATO airstrike in the southern province of Helmand had killed 25 civilians, along with 20 militants who were firing on NATO and Afghan troops from a walled compound. NATO blamed the insurgents for hiding among civilians and said its troops have a right to defend themselves.

Last week, 52 civilians died when artillery was fired into Chora, a town in Uruzgan Province where NATO troops fought the Taliban for three days.

Yesterday, Pakistan said a rocket hit a house in its territory, killing nine civilians during a battle in which NATO and US-led forces killed some 60 suspected Taliban near Afghanistan's eastern border.