By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 23, 2007
KABUL, June 22 -- A NATO airstrike targeting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan has killed dozens of civilians, including women, children and a Muslim cleric, Afghan officials said Friday.
The deaths, if confirmed, would add to a civilian toll that has become a major flash point in the war this year, with Afghans becoming increasingly angry with NATO and U.S.-led forces for not doing more to protect noncombatants.
NATO officials said Taliban fighters were killed in the airstrike overnight Thursday, but acknowledged that civilians might have died as well. They also said the Taliban is deliberately putting civilians in harm's way to provoke a backlash against international forces.
The clash Thursday night began when Taliban fighters attacked NATO troops in the Gereshk district of Helmand province and then fled to a residential area, said Mohammed Anwar Esaqzai, a member of parliament who represents Helmand. After a firefight that lasted several hours, he said, NATO forces called in an airstrike that killed 36 civilians belonging to three families.
"This is happening a lot," Esaqzai said, noting that several airstrikes have killed civilians in recent months. "If it continues to happen, it will raise the anger of the people and cause big problems for NATO."
The provincial police chief, Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, put the civilian death toll at 25. He said that among the dead were nine women, three infants and a local Muslim cleric.
"Afterward, the people wanted to protest. But we went there and told them not to because the terrorists will take advantage and it will become violent," he said.
[In a separate incident Friday, NATO and U.S.-led forces killed about 60 insurgents in the Bermel district of Paktika province near the border with Pakistan, in what was described as the largest insurgent formation crossing the region in six months, NATO said Saturday, according to the Associated Press.]
NATO forces said they lacked precise information about casualties in Friday's airstrike in Helmand. "We're certainly not disputing the figures. But we haven't been able to get into the area to confirm them," said Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a NATO spokesman.
According to Smith's account, insurgents attacked a contingent of British troops operating in the area at about 9 p.m. Thursday, and the troops responded with small-arms fire. They later requested an airstrike on a compound. Most of the 30 insurgents believed to be inside were killed, Smith said.
"We did not identify any civilians in the area at the time," he said. "Otherwise we would not have opened fire."
NATO forces returned to the area Friday morning to look for wounded civilians, but Taliban members who were taking part in a funeral opened fire on the approaching troops. After withdrawing, the troops returned several hours later, and a firefight was continuing Friday evening.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in Ottawa, blamed insurgents for the deaths but said the alliance would be reviewing its procedures to try to limit such incidents.
Violence has been surging in Afghanistan in recent weeks, with civilians paying a heavy price. Approximately 177 civilians were killed this year in NATO or U.S.-led military operations, according to the AP. Other counts have reached at least 230. The AP says 169 civilians have been killed in attacks by insurgents, including a recent series of suicide bombings.
In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the large number of civilian casualties in NATO or U.S.-led operations was "difficult for us to accept or understand." Karzai and his government have frequently accused international forces of not doing all they can to protect civilian lives.
"Every effort has to be made for it to stop," he said in the BBC interview. "Every detail has to be worked out . . . in order for civilians to stop being casualties."
News of the deaths in Helmand came on a day when NATO forces accused the Taliban of using "illegal, immoral methods to fight." The tactics have allegedly included placing a suicide vest on a 6-year-old boy and telling him to push a button as he walked up to a group of Afghan police or army officers. NATO said in a statement that the boy did not understand, and he ultimately asked the officers why he was wearing the vest.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.