Afghan civilian toll climbs after latest air strikes

Women, children among victims as coalition forces pound what they insist were insurgent positions

Toronto Star, Jul 01, 2007

KABUL–In what has become a dolefully familiar event, local Afghan officials yesterday reported that at least 30 civilians, and perhaps a great many more, were killed during U.S.-led coalition air strikes, this time in the Grishk district of southern Helmand province, where dozens of civilians died under similar circumstances in recent days.

Contacted by telephone, the mayor of Grishk, Dor Ali Shah, and tribal elders said the bombardment began late Friday and extended to yesterday, coming soon after insurgents had attacked coalition ground forces.

"Five houses were bombed," the mayor said, who proceeded to identify some of the victims by name.

"These were all civilians, and the dead include women and children. There were also militants killed. We are sending a delegation to the village to investigate," he said.

Reports from two members of parliament from Helmand painted an even grislier picture, putting the civilian toll at 100 or more.

"People tried to escape from the area with their cars, trucks and tractors, and the coalition airplanes bombed them because they thought they were the enemy fleeing," said Hajji Zahir, a tribal elder. "They told me that they had buried 170 bodies so far."

Hajji Assadullah, another elder, told of 35 villagers, fleeing in a tractor-trailer, who were hit by an air strike.

"There were only two survivors, an old man and his son, and the son was seriously injured, and I saw them with my own eyes," he said.

Dr. Ainaytullah Ghafari, head of Grishk Hospital, said he treated three children from one family.

"They had lost seven relatives," Ghafari said. "The bombs hit houses and people ran in order to survive. Most of the victims were women and children. About 60 to 65 civilians have been killed in Kakaran village."

The coalition's account, while not denying civilian deaths, was decidedly different. According to Maj. Chris Belcher, allied forces, which included Afghans, came under heavy fire from small arms, mortars and grenades, near the village of Haderabad. The allies returned fire and called in air support, aimed at "clearly identified firing positions," he said in a prepared statement.

"Remains of some people who apparently were civilians were found among insurgent fighters who were killed in firing positions in a trench line," the major's account read. "We are deeply saddened by any loss of innocent lives. Insurgents are continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat with friendly forces."

There are more than 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, the bulk of them American. (Canadian strength is 2,500.) Fierce combat goes on almost every day in five of Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban are entrenched.

In recent months, the rising number of civilian deaths has provoked severe criticism. The Taliban, of course, come under censure. But the allies, too, are accused of being cavalier with civilian life.

On June 19, Acbar, a coalition of Afghan and international relief agencies such as CARE, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, said that the civilian toll had reached at least 230 this year, with ``excessive use of force" sapping the "initial goodwill toward the international military presence."

On June 23, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, accused the allies of carrying out "careless operations." Said Karzai: "Afghan life is not cheap and should not be treated as such."

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