80 killed in air strikes: Afghan villagers

Jason Burke

Hamlet bombed for three hours by coalition forces after a Taliban ambush

Women, children among victims

Taliban ambushes coalition convoy

Air strikes in the British-controlled Helmand province of Afghanistan may have killed civilians, coalition troops said on Saturday as local people claimed that between 50 and 80 persons, many of them women and children, had died.

In the latest of a series of attacks causing significant civilian casualties in recent weeks, more than 200 were killed by coalition troops in Afghanistan in June, far more than are believed to have been killed by Taliban militants.

The bombardment, which witnesses said lasted up to three hours, in the Gereshk district late on Friday followed an attempted ambush by the Taliban on a joint U.S.-Afghan military convoy. According to Mohammad Hussein, the provincial police chief, the militants fled into a nearby village for cover. Planes then targeted the village of Hyderabad. Mohammad Khan, a resident of the village, said seven members of his family, including his brother and five of his brother’s children, were killed.

“I brought three of my wounded relatives to Gereshk hospital for treatment,” he told the Associated Press news agency by phone. The villagers were yesterday burying a “lot of dead bodies”, Mr. Khan said.

He spoke as American forces in Iraq also found themselves heavily criticised over civilian deaths when eight persons died, apparently caught in crossfire from a gunfight between insurgents and soldiers in Baghdad’s Sadr City. But residents, police and hospital officials said eight civilians were killed in their homes and angrily accused U.S. forces of firing blindly on innocent people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the raids and demanded an explanation for the assault on a district where he has barred American operations in the past.

In Afghanistan, the civilian deaths caused by U.S. and NATO-led troops have infuriated local people and prompted President Hamid Karzai to publicly condemn foreign forces for careless “use of extreme force” and for viewing Afghan lives as “cheap”.

The increasingly fragile President has urged restraint and better co-ordination of military operations with the Afghan Government, while also blaming the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.

Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, raised the issue of civilian casualties on a four-hour visit to Afghanistan on Friday on which he met the senior NATO commander there, the American General Dan McNeill.

Senior British soldiers have previously expressed concerns that Gen. McNeill, who took command of the 32,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan only recently, was “a fan” of the massive use of air power to defeat insurgents and that his favoured tactics could be counter-productive.

“Every civilian dead means five new Taliban,” said one British officer who has recently returned from Helmand.

“It’s a tough call when the enemy are hiding in villages, but you have to be very, very careful,” he added.

But NATO has “never killed and will never intentionally kill innocent civilians”, its Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told a conference in Macedonia on Friday. —

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007

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