U.S. Probes Afghan Assertions That Raid Killed 70 Civilians

By Candace Rondeaux and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 24, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 23 -- U.S. military officials said Saturday that they are investigating allegations by Afghan officials that a U.S.-led bombing raid killed at least 70 civilians in western Afghanistan in the past week.

Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military, said 30 Taliban insurgents were killed in the operation, which targeted a compound occupied by a local Taliban commander.

"We're confident that we struck the right compound," she said.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement that about 70 civilians were killed in the raid. He vowed to take measures to prevent further civilian casualties.

Afghan military officials in Herat said an investigation of the site revealed that about 90 people were killed in the operation. Raouf Ahmedi, a spokesman for the western regional command of the Afghan army in Herat, said Afghan military officials who inspected the site Saturday found the bodies of 60 children and 19 women among the dead.

"We couldn't and we haven't found any identification showing they are Taliban," Ahmedi said.

According to the officials in Herat, the bombing began late Thursday as dozens of villagers in the district of Azizabad gathered for a memorial ceremony for a villager who was killed last year.

Ahmed Dehzad, one of the province's parliamentary representatives, said that local officials received reports of Taliban activity in the vicinity several days before the ceremony but that coalition forces did not issue a warning before the attack on a compound near where the ceremony was held.

Shah Nawaz, a member of the Shindand district council, disputed reports of recent Taliban activity in the area, saying the attack on the compound was unprovoked. He said the bombing prompted widespread protests in the district.

"The coalition forces have made mistakes so many times and killed so many civilians. We are asking President Karzai to come here" to investigate, Nawaz said.

Karzai has come under increasing public pressure to address the rising number of civilian casualties resulting from coalition operations. This year has been one of the deadliest for civilians since U.S.-led military operations began in Afghanistan in 2001.

Last month, U.S. officials said they would investigate three separate airstrikes that Afghan officials said killed at least 78 civilians. In one of the cases, Afghan officials say 47 women and children were killed when coalition forces bombed a wedding party in the eastern province of Nangahar.

NATO and U.S. protocols require high-level approval for airstrikes when civilians are known to be in or near Taliban targets. Military officials say insurgents commonly take up positions in civilian 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.

Investigations into airstrikes can take months to complete. In some cases, the findings remain classified indefinitely.

Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, a spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan, said investigators sent to the site immediately after the bombing verified the deaths of five civilians -- two children and three women who may have been relatives of the Taliban commander. NATO has not been able to confirm the casualty numbers released by Afghan officials, he said.

"On such a serious allegation as this one, we have to look into it," he said. "We're just trying to get to the bottom of this."

Hamdard reported from Kabul.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company