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Civilian Airstrike Deaths Probed
78 Have Died in Three Incidents This Month Alone, Afghan Officials Say

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 25, 2008

KABUL -- U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan have launched investigations into three separate U.S.-led airstrikes that Afghan officials say killed at least 78 civilians this month.

The investigations come during what U.N. and Afghan officials say is one of the deadliest years for civilians since the war began. In the first six months of this year, the number of civilians killed in fighting has increased by nearly 40 percent over the same period last year, according to U.N. data.

"We have seen a number of occurrences lately where a large number of civilians have been killed. It would be fair to say that this year so far there has been an increase in the number of civilians killed by all sides," said Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

More than half of those killed in the three recent U.S.-led airstrikes -- which occurred in a three-week span in three provinces in eastern and western Afghanistan -- were women and children, according to Afghan and Western officials. In one case, about 47 women and children in a wedding party were killed.

The death toll from Western airstrikes has renewed political furor over foreign military operations in Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency is intensifying.

NATO protocols require high-level approval for airstrikes when civilians are known to be in or near Taliban targets. Military officials say fighters with the insurgent group commonly take up positions in civilians' homes, mosques or schools -- increasing the chances of civilian casualties. Those casualties, in turn, help the Taliban win the sympathies of locals and draw new recruits.

The first airstrike under investigation took place July 4 in Zoomia Bala village in the eastern province of Nurestan. Two U.S. helicopters unleashed missiles and gunfire on a pair of vehicles fleeing an area near a NATO and Afghan military base shortly before an attack, according to a confidential cable about the incident sent by the E.U. delegation in Kabul to its member states. At least 16 civilians were killed, according to Afghan media reports and interviews conducted with the E.U. delegation. Nurestan's governor, Tamim Nuristani, said at the time that 22 civilians were killed. He was fired by Karzai days after making the claim.

The second airstrike, which took place the morning of July 6 in the eastern province of Nangahar, claimed the lives of members of the wedding party, according to Afghan and Western officials. A Western official in Afghanistan familiar with details of the aerial assault, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing, said U.S. forces dropped bombs on the party as it traveled through a wide, open area, where presumably it would have been easier for the air attack coordinator or the pilot to determine whether those in the party were civilians, not Taliban fighters.

Nader Nadery, a commissioner with the government-funded Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, agreed, saying that even though the commission's investigators had found that a few men may have been traveling with the wedding party, the presence of women and children should have been clear.

"In large Afghan weddings, women typically wear big green chadors or big red chadors. Their clothes are shiny for the celebration," Nadery said.

The third incident occurred Sunday in the western province of Farah. At least eight Afghan police officers were killed in the district of Ana Darreh when a convoy of U.S. and Afghan soldiers mistakenly called in an airstrike on the officers' location, according to a statement issued by U.S. military officials immediately after the attack.

Last week, Karzai visited the site of the wedding-party bombing and spoke with grieving relatives of those killed. A spokesman for Karzai said this week that the Afghan president continues to talk with NATO officials about progress on the investigation and efforts to minimize civilian casualties from airstrikes.

"We are working very closely with our international friends. We would like the incidences of civilian casualties brought to an absolute minimum," said the spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada.

An estimated 698 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, compared with 430 during the same period last year, the United Nations says. Of those, 255 were killed by NATO forces.

According to a count in a forthcoming report from Human Rights Watch, airstrikes alone have been responsible for 119 civilian deaths this year.

Civilian casualties from airstrikes are a particularly prevalent issue in a war where low NATO troop numbers on the ground combine with difficult and in some areas impassable terrain to create a heavy dependency on air power. Western and Afghan officials agree that the growing reliance on air cover has in some cases served to undermine the public image of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

"It's an easy tool for the hands of the Taliban. Whenever there's an airstrike, the first person who calls and gives exaggerated numbers and information is the Taliban spokesman," Nadery said. "That certainly feeds into the negative feelings that Afghans have about foreign forces operating here."

Mark Laity, a spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan, said the coalition is working hard to adhere to the strict protocols on airstrikes. He said Taliban propaganda on civilian casualties has been effective.

"If we don't drop a bomb, they win because they're protected and can remain in the area. If we do drop a bomb and there are civilian casualties, then they win because they can say that we are here to rape, pillage and plunder," Laity said.

Investigations into the three airstrikes could take months to complete.

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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