Karzai denounces US-led air strike that killed civilians

About 70 die in Afghanistan

By M. Karim Faiez
Los Angeles Times / August 24, 2008
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KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai yesterday denounced an air strike by US-led forces that his government said killed more than 70 Afghan civilians.

Karzai said his government would soon announce "necessary measures" to prevent more civilian casualties but provided no details.

Civilian deaths are an extremely sensitive subject in Afghanistan, where the government repeatedly has pleaded with Western troops to exercise greater care to avoid hurting and killing noncombatants. Karzai broke down in tears during one such appeal.

The US military initially put the number of dead in Friday's air strike at 30, describing all those killed in a remote part of Herat Province as Taliban militants. Yesterday, US spokesmen said allegations of a much higher and predominantly civilian death toll would be investigated.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said Friday the aerial bombardment killed 76 civilians, including scores of women and children.

Government officials who traveled yesterday to Azizabad in Herat Province, where the operation took place, said the death toll had risen to 95, including civilians. That makes it one of the deadliest bombing strikes on civilians in six years of the war.

Accounts of the fighting provided by Afghan authorities, human rights groups, and the US military have varied widely, and the remoteness of the area made it difficult to determine exactly what happened.

The United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, called for the operation to be investigated "thoroughly and quickly."

The US military said it staged the air strike near Afghanistan's western border to target a senior Taliban commander. Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said the commander targeted in the raid, Mullah Siddiq, was among those killed in the air strike.

Local authorities reported villagers threw stones at Afghan soldiers who arrived in Azizabad yesterday to distribute aid, and that soldiers eventually fired into the air to disperse the protesters.

Ghulam Azrat, 50, the director of the middle school in Azizabad, said he collected 60 bodies Friday morning after the bombing.

"We put the bodies in the main mosque," he told the Associated Press by phone. "Most of these dead bodies were children and women. It took all morning to collect them."

Azrat said villagers threw stones at Afghan soldiers when the troops tried to give food and clothes to them. He said the soldiers fired into the crowd and wounded eight people, including one child critically injured.

"The people were very angry," he said. "They told the soldiers, 'We don't need your food; we don't need your clothes. We want our children. We want our relatives. Can you give it to us? You cannot, so go away.' "

An Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission researcher visited Azizabad and found that 15 houses had been destroyed and others were damaged, said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the group's commissioner.

Nadery said the information was preliminary and the group would publish a final report. He did not provide a breakdown of how many were civilians or militants, and said 20 women were among the dead and that children also were killed.

Nadery confirmed reports from villagers that a memorial ceremony was being held for a deputy militia commander allied with the Afghan police named Timor Shah, who had died in a personal dispute several months ago. Because of the memorial, relatives and friends from outside Azizabad were staying overnight in village homes, he said.

An AP photographer who visited Azizabad yesterday said he saw at least 20 graves, including some graves with multiple bodies in them. He said he saw about 20 houses that had been destroyed.

The US said it would investigate the conflicting reports.

"Obviously there's allegations and a disconnect here. The sooner we can get that cleared up and get it official, the better off we'll all be," said US coalition spokesman First Lieutenant Nathan Perry.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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