Dozens Die In NATO's Offensive in Afghanistan

By Griff Witte and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 18 -- Dozens of people have died in intense fighting in recent days as NATO-led forces have opened a new front in Afghanistan's volatile south, Afghan and international security officials said Monday.

Approximately 50 to 60 insurgents have been killed or injured in the fighting in Uruzgan province, a remote and relatively lawless region that had not been a major battleground this year, according to a NATO forces spokesman, U.S. Army Maj. John Thomas.

Thomas said one NATO soldier and two Afghan police officers had also been killed and 10 civilians had been injured.

But according to Mulvi Hamdullah, head of the provincial council in Uruzgan, the toll among civilians was far higher -- between 50 and 60 dead. "The fighting is still going on," he said in an interview late Monday night.

Hamdullah said local Afghans had organized a makeshift ambulance brigade to carry about 30 wounded civilians out of the isolated, mountainous battle zone for treatment. "We ask that the government and NATO forces help us to take the injured to the hospital. So far they haven't helped us at all," he said.

Violence has been sharply rising in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Much of the fighting has occurred in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which had largely slipped out of government control over the past couple of years.

Thomas said the fighting in neighboring Uruzgan reflects a decision by NATO commanders to expand the battlefield. The NATO-led force, he said, "is choosing to go into an area to establish control. Before, the insurgents might have been left alone because it wasn't a focus."

Hamdullah said that approximately 1,500 anti-government fighters -- including Afghans, Chechens, Arabs and Pakistanis -- had congregated in the Chowreh district of Uruzgan and that most of the fighting in recent days was taking place there.

"The security has been very bad in Chowreh. The government knew about it, but it hadn't taken any action," said Sona Nilofar, a member of parliament from Uruzgan.

The past three days have been particularly bloody in Afghanistan. Late Sunday, U.S.-led coalition forces fought lengthy battles with suspected militants in Kandahar and Helmand. The coalition said that dozens of Taliban fighters were killed and that two coalition service members were injured.

In a separate incident in Kandahar on Sunday, three coalition service members and their Afghan interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb. Also on Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 24 people in Kabul and a U.S.-led air attack left seven children and several militants dead in the eastern province of Paktika.

U.S.-led forces said Monday that they were not aware children were present in a suspected al-Qaeda hideout when they decided to launch the strike late Sunday.

There has been rising anger in Afghanistan toward international forces for not doing more to protect noncombatants. Afghan officials say more than 130 Afghan civilians have been killed in U.S.-led and NATO-led operations in the past six months.

The U.S.-led coalition apologized Monday for the killing of the children but blamed militants for hiding among civilians. "We are truly sorry for the innocent lives lost in this attack," U.S. Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, said in a statement. "We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building."

The compound included a mosque and a madrassa, or religious school. According to the coalition, survivors of the airstrike said that before the attack, children in the madrassa had been beaten and pushed away from the door when they tried to go outside.

A spokesman for the governor of Paktika confirmed that militants had been active in the area in recent days, but said the loss of civilian life was "not acceptable." U.S. forces reported Monday that they were meeting with tribal elders in the area to try to reduce tensions.

Insurgency-related violence has killed more than 2,400 people in Afghanistan this year, according to a count by the Associated Press based on official figures.

Hamdard reported from Kabul.

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