Accurate body count nearly impossible in Afghanistan

Saturday, October 20, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Out of the chaos, smoke and rubble left by nearly two weeks of intense American bombardment, a wrenching question emerges: How many innocents are dead?

The Taliban, Afghan-istan's Islamic rulers, claim up to 400 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed in airstrikes that have pounded the country for 13 days and nights, hitting targets in and around nearly all its major population centers.

The Pentagon calls the Taliban figures self-serving and exaggerated -- but acknowledges that in an air war, civilian casualties are almost impossible to avoid, whatever care is taken to prevent civilians from being hurt and killed.

The United States hasn't given a number of how many civilians it believed have died. The Pentagon acknowledged that one of its missiles went astray and hit homes in Kabul, saying there were reports up to four people were killed. It also confirmed four workers for a U.N.-funded agency were killed, though whether by a missile or by errant Taliban anti-aircraft fire was unclear.

Military neighborhoods

As frightened refugees pour across the borders of Pakistan, they are providing firsthand accounts of deaths they have witnessed -- often agonizingly close to home.

At the Chaman border post, closest to the Afghan city of Kandahar, the Taliban's home base, 55-year-old Haji Noor Mohammed had tears pouring down his bearded face as he crossed into Pakistan.

"They killed my whole family," he said. "My wife and four children were burned to death when a bomb hit my house.... May Allah avenge their deaths."

Compelling as such accounts are, they have been too scattered to provide a comprehensive picture of what is happening across Afghanistan. In many cases, though, groups of refugees arriving on the same day have painted a consistent and credible picture of airstrikes hitting a particular neighborhood -- often one lying somewhere near a military target, such as an airport.

Afghanistan's near-total isolation makes independent investigation of casualty claims almost impossible. All foreigners were ordered out before the airstrikes began.

Taliban authorities did bring one group of foreign journalists into the country last Sunday to visit Karam, a remote village outside the eastern city of Jalalabad. Taliban officials said at least 200 civilians had died in an airstrike there four days earlier.

The village was nearly flattened; giant craters were visible. Fresh graves, bloodied bedding and animal carcasses could be seen, and a nearby hospital was treating dozens of injured. But there was still no way to pin down the precise numbers of dead.

In some instances, a third party is able to provide official confirmation about deaths or injuries. The United Nations provided the first outside confirmation of civilian casualties -- four guards who died when the office of their U.N.-funded mine-clearing agency was hit on Oct. 8, the second night of bombardment.

War of words

The intended target of that stray strike isn't known; the building wasn't far from a transmission tower, and there was a munitions dump in the area as well. The casualty count has led to some tense exchanges. On Thursday, a Taliban spokesman, Abdul Hai Muttmain, told the Qatar-based satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera that more than 600 people had been killed in airstrikes, and thousands wounded.

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