U.S. Voices Regret for Deaths of 16 Afghans

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 25, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, May 24 -- The U.S. military expressed regret Wednesday for the deaths of a reported 16 civilian villagers Monday in U.S. airstrikes near here, but officials and elders said Taliban insurgents were responsible for the incident.

"We never wanted this to happen," Col. Thomas Collins, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters in Kabul, the capital. "The ultimate cause of civilians being injured and killed was that the Taliban knowingly and willingly chose to occupy homes. . . . We do everything we can to prevent killing civilians."

Violent clashes continued in southern Afghanistan, where more than 300 people have been killed in the past week. At least 24 insurgents and four Afghan soldiers were killed Wednesday in a clash in Uruzgan province, and a senior Afghan army official said the bodies of 60 insurgents were found at the site.

The Taliban militia has vowed to wage sustained war against the Afghan government this summer and recently has intensified attacks in its former southern strongholds. Taliban spokesmen have warned foreign troops to leave the country or be killed.

According to Afghan and U.S. officials, the civilian deaths Monday occurred when Taliban fighters took shelter in mud compounds near the village of Azizi, about 30 miles west of Kandahar, the provincial capital, and fired at U.S.-led ground forces from windows and roofs.

U.S. A-10 gunships then strafed the compounds with heavy fire, killing and wounding an undetermined number of civilians. The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said 16 people were killed and 16 were injured, and U.S. military spokesmen said between 20 and 80 Taliban fighters died.

President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday called for an investigation of the incident and asked the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, to come to the presidential palace in Kabul and explain what had happened.

Previous incidents resulting in civilian deaths, though rare, have provoked widespread anger against the U.S.-led military campaign to wipe out Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. The southern region is especially tense now because of increased attacks by Taliban forces and more aggressive pursuit of the insurgents by Afghan, U.S. and other foreign troops.

Witnesses have told Afghan journalists that the number of dead and wounded was far higher than the number cited by Khalid and that the air attacks took place in more than one village. U.S. officials said they were assessing the damage and could not confirm the number of dead or wounded civilians.

Some tribesmen in the Panjwai district, where Azizi is located, reportedly support the revived Taliban insurgency, whose leaders are trying to sabotage Karzai's government and drive foreign military forces from the country.

But others publicly blamed the Taliban for using civilian homes as shelter and said they were planning to demand that the insurgents leave the area.

"We will defend ourselves and our district. We will not let the Taliban come and use it against the government. We will tell them to go somewhere else and do their actions," one leader, Hajji Agha Lalai Dastegui, said Wednesday by telephone.

Ahmed Karzai, the president's brother and a senior political leader in Kandahar, said some of the people injured in the attack had told officials they did not want the insurgents there. He said he and other leaders met Tuesday with a large number of Panjwai elders to discuss the incident.

"Everyone understands this is the fault of the Taliban," he said. "They said they asked the fighters please not to get on their roofs."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company