Afghan Officials Say Dozens of Civilians Died in NATO Military Strike

By Allauddin Khan
Associated Press
Friday, October 27, 2006

LAY KUNDI, Afghanistan, Oct. 26 -- Dozens of civilians were killed in a NATO military strike against suspected Taliban insurgents, Afghan officials said Thursday. Villagers fled the southern region by car and donkey, and hundreds attended a funeral for about 20 people buried in a mass grave.

The civilian death toll, estimated by Afghan officials at between 30 and 85, including many women and children, is among the highest in foreign military action here since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

NATO said a preliminary review found that 12 civilians were killed in the clashes Tuesday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province. But the alliance could not say if they had died because of Taliban or NATO action.

Maj. Luke Knittig, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said as many as 70 insurgents may have been killed in three clashes. The fighting took place in or around the villages of Lay Kundi and Mirwisa Mina. According to Knittig, Taliban fighters attacked NATO forces, drawing return artillery fire and airstrikes aimed at them.

Bismallah Afghanmal, a provincial council member, said fighters fled into civilian houses, which were then targeted by NATO forces.

Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman, said: "With insurgents who regard the population as a form of human shield for themselves, it obviously makes life very difficult for us, but it does not stop us from making every effort to ensure that we minimize any problems."

But villagers and local government officials denounced NATO and blamed the government for a lack of security. "The people are not forgetting the deaths of their children after a simple 'sorry,' " Afghanmal said.

"Everyone is very angry at the government and the coalition. There was no Taliban," Abdul Aye, who lives in Mirwisa Mina, said through tears at the mass funeral in Kandahar city. He said 22 members of his family were killed. "These tragedies just keep continuing."

Death tolls in remote military action in Afghanistan are difficult to determine, and estimates often vary widely. Also in question is who can be considered a civilian and who is a fighter.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly condemned civilian deaths caused by Western forces. A week ago, after nine villagers were killed during another NATO operation in Kandahar province, he urged the alliance to use "maximum caution" to avoid civilian casualties.

Tuesday's violence in Panjwayi came a month after NATO launched a major offensive in the district. The alliance said more than 500 insurgents were killed in the earlier operation, which the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Richards, called a "significant success."

Richards last month said reconstruction and development efforts, which many officers see as critical for winning over Afghans after the military action, would soon begin in the region. But since then, heavy fighting has broken out.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company