Elisabeth Bumiller, Carlotta Gall,Taimoor Shah / New York Times – 2009-05-08 22:34:30
WASHINGTON (May 8, 2009) — US officials acknowledged Thursday for the first time that at least some of what may be 100 civilian deaths in western Afghanistan were caused by American bombs, as Afghan residents angrily protested the casualties and demanded that US forces leave the country.
Initial US military reports that some of the casualties might have been caused by Taliban grenades, not US air strikes, were “thinly sourced,” a Pentagon official in Washington said late Thursday, indicating he was uncertain of their accuracy.
“It looks like at least some of the casualties were caused by the air strikes,” the official acknowledged. A second Pentagon official said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a mix,” but added that it was too soon to tell.
The deaths drew hundreds of Afghans to protest in the streets outside police stations and the governor’s office in Farah province, where two villages were bombed after Afghan forces were ambushed by Taliban insurgents Monday night. Outside the governor’s office, police officers fired on demonstrators who threw stones, wounding three of them.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, questioned by journalists as he visited the capital, Kabul, apologized for any loss of innocent life. But he said that “exploiting civilian casualties and often causing civilian casualties are a fundamental part” of the insurgents’ strategy.
“We regret any — even one — innocent Afghan civilian casualty,” Gates said. “And we will make whatever amends are necessary.” The number of civilians killed in military operations — particularly US bombing raids — has become a chief source of Afghan disenchantment with the war against the Taliban, which is now in its seventh year. The United Nations estimated that more than 2,000 civilians were killed in fighting last year.
Villagers and Afghan lawmakers cast doubt on the initial US claims that the casualties had been caused by Taliban grenades. Muhammad Naeem Farahi, a member of Parliament who is from the area and has followed the case closely, laughed at the suggestion. “No, that’s not true,” he said, “and I am someone who supports the American presence.”
Gates arrived in Kabul after a day spent in southern Afghanistan visiting troops and bases that are being expanded to accommodate some of the additional 20,000 US forces ordered to Afghanistan this year by President Obama.
Elsewhere, in Helmand province in the south, a suicide bomber on a motorbike struck a NATO convoy as it was passing through the main street of a town, Gereshk. The blast killed 12 civilians, including children, and wounded 32 others, a government spokesman said.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
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