9 Afghan Civilians Reported Killed in U.S. Airstrike

A villager peers out of a mud-brick house in Kapisa province, north of Kabul, where U.S. forces dropped bombs after two Taliban insurgents took refuge.
A villager peers out of a mud-brick house in Kapisa province, north of Kabul, where U.S. forces dropped bombs after two Taliban insurgents took refuge. (By Musadeq Sadeq -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 5 -- U.S. forces killed nine Afghan civilians Sunday night while bombing a house where two Taliban insurgents had taken refuge, Afghan authorities said Monday.

Sayed Mohammed Daoud Hashimi, deputy governor of Kapisa province in northeastern Afghanistan, said the insurgents fled to the house after firing rockets at a base used by the U.S.-led coalition. The house belonged to relatives of one of the fighters, and nine of them -- three children, five women and an elderly man -- were killed when U.S. forces dropped bombs on it, Hashimi said. The two Taliban members were injured in the blast but managed to escape.

U.S. military officials later acknowledged having dropped the bombs but said they could not confirm reports of civilian casualties.

The deaths followed by hours the killing of at least eight Afghan civilians outside the eastern city of Jalalabad on Sunday morning. In that incident, U.S. Marines engaged in a firefight with insurgents after their convoy was hit by a van packed with explosives, according to U.S. officials. Afghan witnesses later said the Marines fired indiscriminately at bystanders as they sped away. The deaths remain under investigation.

The incidents, while separate, underscore the challenge facing coalition forces as they confront insurgents who, according to military officials, are trying to provoke battles that lead to civilian deaths. Both the coalition and the Taliban, the Islamic militia that ruled most of the country until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have indicated that they are preparing for a violent spring as conditions for fighting improve.

The deaths of the civilians near Jalalabad sparked angry protests Sunday, with hundreds of people taking to the streets, throwing rocks and chanting anti-American slogans. Authorities in Jalalabad said there were no additional protests Monday and described the situation as calm.

Hashimi said that in contrast to the Jalalabad incident, the reaction to the airstrike in Kapisa was muted because local residents knew that the bombed house was being used by the Taliban.

"The people knew these men were constantly attacking security and coalition forces. The people asked them to stop, because we don't want any problems for our village," he said. "But they didn't listen to the people. They kept attacking."

The provincial police chief, Gen. Raz Mohammed, said his forces had also come under attack from the Taliban on Sunday. He called the U.S. response justified.

In a statement, the U.S. military acknowledged dropping two 2,000-pound bombs on the building where the insurgents were believed to be hiding.

"Coalition forces observed two men with AK-47s leaving the scene of the rocket attack and entering the compound," said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a coalition forces spokesman. "These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces."

The U.S. military said its forces suffered no injuries in the initial rocket attack. The incident was under investigation Monday night.

John Sifton, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the advocacy group was calling for independent investigations into whether U.S. forces reacted disproportionately in either incident. "The insurgents are regularly carrying out illegal attacks, but these responses are also extremely destructive," he said. "Whenever a mistake or, worse, recklessness, occurs, it sets back the effort."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company