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U.N. Finds Airstrike Killed 90 Afghans

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By Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 26 -- United Nations officials in Afghanistan said Tuesday that there was "convincing evidence" at least 90 civilians -- two-thirds of them children -- were killed in a U.S.-led airstrike last week that caused the Afghan government to call for a review of U.S. and NATO military operations in the country.

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Kai Eide, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said local officials and residents in the western province of Herat corroborated reports that 60 children and 30 adults had been killed in an Aug. 21 military operation led by U.S. Special Operations forces and the Afghan army.

In a statement, Eide called the incident a "matter of grave concern to the United Nations" and said he had "repeatedly made clear that the safety and welfare of civilians must be considered above all else during the planning and conduct of all military operations."

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have increased their reliance on air power since last year, causing a corresponding increase in civilian deaths. The Herat assault appears to have caused the largest civilian loss of life attributed to U.S. forces since the war began in late 2001.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said military commanders in Afghanistan continued to believe that the attack in Herat "was a legitimate strike on a Taliban target."

Whitman promised a detailed investigation. "This has a lot of people's interest, and my sense is they want to be thorough and complete. We're doing it as expeditiously as we can."

The U.N. findings came as the government of President Hamid Karzai demanded more coordination between Afghan and international security forces and called for greater accountability on the part of U.S. and NATO troops operating in the country. Afghanistan's Council of Ministers called Monday for a halt to aerial bombings and to what it called overly aggressive house raids and illegal detentions. The council demanded an agreement with U.S. and NATO forces that would define the parameters of international military operations in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials and independent investigators say more than 165 civilians have been killed in four airstrikes in the past two months. The deaths have angered Afghans, who are pressuring Karzai to seek greater control over foreign troops even as resurgent Taliban fighters increase their attacks on the international presence in Afghanistan.

Sultan Ahmed Baheen, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said his office and the Afghan Defense Ministry have been working to draft a document that would require more coordination between Afghan security forces and international troops to minimize civilian deaths and damage from military operations. About 60,000 troops from 40 nations are in Afghanistan, including 32,000 from the United States.

At the United Nations on Tuesday, Russia introduced a sharply worded draft statement expressing concern about reports that U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan had caused "numerous civilian casualties, including women and children."

U.N. diplomats said the Russian text stood little chance of being adopted in the Security Council, where the United States wields veto power. They interpreted the Russian action as a signal that it would pursue a more confrontational approach with the United States in response to Washington's criticism of the Russian intervention in Georgia.

U.S. officials in Washington said they have been anticipating that Karzai will demand a formal status-of-forces agreement with the United States; the Bush administration is finalizing a similar accord with Iraq after protracted negotiations. Although U.S. troops participate in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan under a U.N. mandate, the bulk of U.S. forces fall under Operation Enduring Freedom, a U.S.-only force governed by an exchange of diplomatic notes signed with the Afghan government in May 2003.


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