U.S. bombing kills Afghan civilians

May 6, 2009 8:26:12 AM PDT
The international Red Cross confirmed Wednesday that civilians were found in graves and rubble where Afghan officials alleged U.S. bombs killed had dozens. The Afghan president said his first meeting with President Barack Obama would focus on the issue of civilian deaths. Women and children were among dozens of bodies in two villages targeted by airstrikes, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported Wednesday, after sending a team to the district. The U.S. military sent a brigadier general to the region to investigate.

A former Afghan government official said up to 120 people died in the bombing Monday evening.

The first images from the bombings in Farah province emerged Wednesday. Photos from the site obtained by The Associated Press showed villagers burying the dead in about a dozen fresh graves, while others dug through the rubble of demolished mud-brick homes.

The international Red Cross team in Farah's Bala Baluk district on Tuesday saw "dozens of bodies in each of the two locations that we went to," said spokeswoman Jessica Barry.

"There were bodies, there were graves, and there were people burying bodies when we were there," she said. "We do confirm women and children. There were women and children."

Karzai ordered an investigation and the U.S. military sent a brigadier general to Farah to head a U.S. investigation, said Col. Greg Julian, a U.S. spokesman. Afghan military and police officials were also part of the investigative team.

"The United States deeply regrets any injury or loss of life among innocent Afghans resulting from operations in which its forces are involved," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a statement Tuesday.

Karzai, currently in the United States, will raise the issue of civilian deaths with Obama, a statement from Karzai's office said. The two presidents were scheduled to hold their first face-to-face meeting later Wednesday.

Karzai called civilian casualties "unacceptable."

Civilian deaths have caused increasing friction between the Afghan and U.S. governments, and Karzai has long pleaded with American officials to reduce civilian casualties in their operations. U.S. and NATO officials accuse the Taliban militants of fighting from within civilian homes, thus putting them in danger.

Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, a former district chief of Bala Buluk, said between 100 and 120 people were killed in the attacks. He said villagers were still uncovering bodies, some of which were missing limbs or were torn into small pieces, he said.

"People are still looking through the rubble," Qadderdan said. "We need more people to help us. Many families left the villages, fearing other strikes."

Provincial authorities have told villagers not to bury the bodies, but instead to line them up for the officials conducting the investigation to see, Qadderdan said.

The fighting broke out Monday soon after Taliban fighters -- including Taliban from Pakistan and Iran -- massed in Farah province in western Afghanistan, said Belqis Roshan, a member of Farah's provincial council. The provincial police chief, Abdul Ghafar, said 25 militants and three police officers died in that battle near the village of Ganjabad in Bala Baluk district, a Taliban-controlled area near the border with Iran.

Villagers told Afghan officials they put children, women, and elderly men in several housing compounds in the village of Gerani -- about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) to the east -- to keep them safe. But villagers said fighter aircraft later targeted those compounds, killing a majority of those inside, according to Roshan and other officials.

A Western official in Kabul said Marine special operations forces -- which fall under the U.S. coalition -- called in the airstrikes. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

Villagers brought about 30 bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the governor Tuesday, said Abdul Basir Khan, a member of the provincial council.

Journalists and human rights workers can rarely visit remote battle sites to verify claims of civilian casualties. U.S. officials say Taliban militants sometimes force villagers to lie and say civilians have died in coalition strikes. But the international Red Cross report and other official accounts added weight to villagers' claims in Bala Baluk.

In remarks in the United States on Tuesday, Karzai alluded to the problem of civilian casualties without mentioning the bombing deaths. He said the success of the new U.S. war strategy depends on "making sure absolutely that Afghans don't suffer -- that Afghan civilians are protected."

"This war against terrorism will succeed only if we fight it from a higher platform of morality," he said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Asked later to clarify, Karzai said, "We must be conducting this war as better human beings," and recognize that "force won't buy you obedience."

An Afghan government commission previously found that an August 2008 operation by U.S. forces killed 90 civilians in Azizabad, a finding backed by the U.N. The U.S. originally said no civilians died; a high-level investigation later concluded 33 civilians were killed.

After the Azizabad killings, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, announced a directive last September meant to reduce such deaths. He ordered commanders to consider breaking away from a firefight in populated areas rather than pursue militants into villages.

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