Richard A. Oppel Jr.,Taimoor Shah / New York Times – 2009-02-15 23:54:17
KABUL, Afghanistan (February 14, 2009) — Five children were killed in predawn fighting Thursday between Australian special operations troops and Taliban guerrillas in south central Afghanistan, the Australian military said, the latest episode of civilian casualties that have hurt support for U.S. and NATO troops here.
The skirmish, which occurred in darkness in a village called Sarmorghab in Oruzgan province, north of the southern city of Kandahar, was condemned by the provincial governor, Assadullah Hamdam, who said it would have a “negative effect” on relations between Afghans and foreign troops in the country.
He offered a different casualty toll, saying three children had been killed and four wounded after a sustained firefight. He said provincial officials had already pleaded with troops not to carry out raids where civilians are present.
The deaths come amid growing complaints from Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, about civilian casualties. The officials have said that plans by the U.S.-led military alliance in Afghanistan to add as many as 30,000 more American troops could lead to more fatalities.
Afghan leaders will press their case over the next few days with Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who arrived in Afghanistan Thursday after visiting Pakistan. By the time he leaves Afghanistan, he is expected to have met with Karzai and perhaps a dozen other senior Afghan political leaders and lawmakers, as well as with U.N., U.S. and NATO officials.
A statement by the Australian military Friday about the Oruzgan deaths said the Australian troops began shooting after they were attacked by Taliban insurgents. “A number of people have been killed and wounded during this incident,” the statement said. In addition to the five children, a suspected insurgent was killed and two children and two civilians were also wounded, the statement said. None of the Australians was hurt.
The Australian military said it had initiated an investigation and its troops had operated “in accordance with the rules of engagement.” A senior Australian military official, Lt. Gen. Mark Evans, declined to answer reporters’ questions about how so many children could have been killed in one attack, and whether the children were killed by ground fire or an air strike called in by the troops. The military also provided no immediate information about the children’s ages.
Hamdam said he did not know the condition of the wounded children. He said they had been taken for treatment to Kandahar province.
He said the Australian forces “claimed that they had killed one Taliban commander, then we later found out that three children were killed in cross-fire in one of the houses.”
“This kind of killing actually brings negative effects on the thoughts of residents of Oruzgan,” he said.
In a separate attack, the American military command in Kabul said a serviceman had also been killed in Oruzgan province on Thursday. The service member, whose military branch was not identified, was killed by “enemy fire during a combat reconnaissance patrol,” the military said. An Afghan soldier was wounded.
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