Afghan official questions claim of civilian deaths

Friday, February 6, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A senior Afghan official said Thursday it was unclear if a U.S. airstrike last month killed civilians, as President Hamid Karzai claims, and reports of innocent casualties could be an attempt to discredit American forces.

In the disputed airstrike targeting Taliban militants, the deputy interior minister told The Associated Press that ministry officials who traveled to the remote area where the attack took place saw graves of six victims, not 11 as previously claimed.

When delegates asked where the other five were, villagers said "they fell into the river and were swept away," Hilalludin Hillal said. "We told all this to the president."

Residents and local officials confirmed that Taliban were active in the area, Hillal said, which means the airstrike victims could have been militants and scared locals told officials what militants wanted them to say.

"The Taliban want to make propaganda against the Americans," he said. "They are coming and going in this region and the people are afraid of them."

The U.S. military says it killed five Taliban militants fleeing a meeting in the Jan. 17 raid in the Char China district of Uruzgan province, about 250 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul.

Local officials say 11 civilians were killed; Karzai said Saturday that a government investigation of the strike established 10 civilians had died -- including women and children.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, rejected the government report as insufficient and demanded more evidence. The military has said the militants were clearly identified on a videotape shot from the attacking aircraft, though the suspected Taliban leaders who were targeted escaped.

The airstrike came less than two months after 15 Afghan children were killed in two raids in eastern Afghanistan. The military says it adjusted its operations to avoid any repeat, after protests from Afghan officials and the United Nations.

American commanders and Afghan officials are trying desperately to improve security in the lawless south and east ahead of planned summer elections, a key step in the drive to stabilize the country.

More than 90 people have died in violence since the ratification of a new Afghan constitution Jan. 4 -- including two international peacekeepers killed in suicide bombings, an increasing tactic by insurgents here.

Police on Thursday arrested the owner of a taxi used in a suicide attack that killed a British soldier in the Afghan capital last week, Deputy Interior Minister Hilalludin Hillal told The Associated Press, declining to identify the suspect or comment further.

One British soldier was killed and four injured Jan. 28 when a taxi filled with explosives blew up as their open-topped jeep tried to pass. The day before, a Canadian peacekeeper died when a man blew himself up in front of a peacekeepers' jeep in a different part of the city.

Both blasts were claimed by the Taliban, adding a new ferocity to an insurgency focused on the south and east of the country. Commanders of the NATO-led security force warned that more attacks could follow, and have scaled back patrols as a precaution. U.N. staff in the city have also been told to keep a low profile.

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