Alissa J. Rubin / New York Times – 2011-03-02 00:41:58
KABUL (February 28, 2011) — Afghan investigators said Sunday that they were convinced that NATO forces killed 65 civilians in air strikes in eastern Afghanistan this month, a charge that, if true, would be one of the worst civilian casualty episodes of the war.
NATO officials, who are still investigating the claims, have insisted that the people killed were insurgents.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations are also investigating and have not completed their reports, which typically are the most thorough investigations and are perceived as impartial.
Since the attack on the night of Feb. 17 in the mountain valleys of Ghaziabad district in eastern Kunar province, an insurgent-held area, there have been conflicting reports of what happened. Most members of the government’s investigating committee did not go to the village where the attack took place because the area is too dangerous.
Based on reports from tribal elders and survivors, the government team concluded that NATO had fired on civilians. “Basically, as soon as the villagers heard the shooting and planes roaring overhead, they all struggled to take refuge in an old trench,” said Shahzada Massoud, the Afghan leader of the investigation and special adviser for tribal affairs to President Hamid Karzai.
Another member of the investigation team, a former member of parliament, Shuja ul-Mulk, did go to the village and came back with a slightly different report. Although he also says he believes the casualties were civilians, he said he counted 27 graves and gave a different breakdown for the numbers of men, women and children.
He described frightened villagers who, when they heard the helicopters coming, ran outside for fear they would be bombed in their houses. They went to hide in the Soviet-era trenches and were bombed as they hid, he said.
The discrepancy in how many graves ul-Mulk saw versus the number of people the government reported had been killed points to some of the difficulties in assessing civilian casualties. It can be difficult to tell whether graves are new or old, or recently dug up to appear fresh, human rights organizations said. The same is true of blood stains. Similarly, the number of graves often does not correspond to the number of bodies, since there can be several bodies in a grave.
NATO, in its initial public statements last week, said video of the assault showed armed men meeting and then dispersing on a mountainside. A NATO spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, said he saw no sign that civilians or civilian houses were attacked, although he did not rule out the possibility of civilian casualties.
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