Jason Straziuso / Associated Press – 2009-02-20 22:38:13
KABUL, Afghanistan (February 19, 2009) — Responding quickly to another allegation of civilian casualties, a US general traveled to western Afghanistan on Wednesday to investigate reports that six women and two children were killed in a US air strike. Photos of the site showed at least one dead boy, bloodied and dirty from the attack.
Civilian deaths have been a source of friction between the United States and President Hamid Karzai, who has increased demands that US troops avoid killing civilians in the fight against the Taliban.
President Obama announced Tuesday that he is deploying an additional 17,000 US forces to Afghanistan to bolster the 33,000 already in the country. That plan increases the chances that more civilians could be killed.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense condemned the deaths of civilians in Monday’s air strike and said it came despite a recent US-Afghan agreement to increase participation of Afghan forces in US missions, a step aimed at preventing civilian casualties.
The US coalition said in a statement that the strike Monday in the Gozara district of Herat province killed 15 militants and targeted a leader named Ghulam Yahya Akbari.
But Ekremuddin Yawar, a police commander for western Afghanistan, said six women and two children were among the dead, along with five men. He said the group was living in tents in the remote Afghan countryside.
Photographs obtained by the Associated Press from the site show the body of a young boy – bloodied and dirtied – lying on a white shroud. Afghan men can be seen digging about a dozen graves. Dead sheep and destroyed tents can also be seen.
In response to Yawar’s allegation, US Brig. Gen. Michael Ryan traveled to Gozara district on Wednesday to meet with officials. Coalition and Afghan troops have been at the site of the operation since Tuesday investigating, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a US spokeswoman.
A statement from the US military late Wednesday did not acknowledge any civilian deaths.
The Ministry of Defense said seven militants were killed in the attack, including three people it named as associates of Yahya Akbari. Neither it nor the United States said Yahya Akbari was killed.
The ministry said militants had hidden in civilian houses, causing an unspecified number of civilian deaths. However, the photographs showed no houses – only tents – and it wasn’t clear to what the ministry was referring.
An ethnic group of Afghans known as Kuchis travel the countryside with livestock and live in tents.
After increasingly angry demands by Karzai for more US-Afghan military cooperation, the American and Afghan militaries announced plans this month to increase the number of Afghans who will take part in US operations.
Despite condemning the civilian deaths, the ministry said it will take more time to implement the agreement. But it urged US forces to “be very careful during their operations.”
The investigative team’s trip to Herat comes one day after the United Nations released a report saying that 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan war last year, a 40 percent increase over 2007 and the most since the US-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban’s hard-line Islamist government.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
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