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Archive for Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Civilians bear burden of spike in violence

June 19, 2007

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— More than 100 people, including militants, civilians and police, have been killed in three days of fierce clashes between NATO and the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Monday.

To the east, U.S.-led coalition jets bombed a suspected al-Qaida compound, killing seven boys and several fighters.

Afghanistan has seen a spike in violence the last several days, leading to a mounting number of civilian casualties that are sapping support for foreign troops and the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Even though a majority of civilians deaths is caused by attacks initiated by the Taliban, Afghan anger over civilian casualties is often directed toward U.S. and NATO-led troops. Such killings have prompted Afghan authorities to plead repeatedly for international forces to work more closely with Afghans.

But in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched what appears to be their biggest offensive of the year, forcing NATO troops to respond.

Dutch military officials said hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked police posts Saturday near the strategic town of Chora, sparking a battle that officials said was continuing. The attack appeared to be a change in strategy by the insurgents, who had been relying on an increasing number of suicide and roadside bombings this year.

Maj. Gen. Jouke Eikelboom, director of operations with the Dutch military, said Karzai and the Uruzgan governor sought military support after the attack on the police posts.

A summary of fighter jet activity from Sunday sent out by the U.S. Central Command hinted at the ferocity of the battles, detailing at least eight aircraft dropping bombs or firing on the area.

Precise casualty figures were not available because of the continued fighting, though two Afghan officials said more than 100 people have been killed, including at least 16 police. A Dutch soldier also died.

Afghan officials said Taliban fighters sought shelter in civilian homes and that NATO bombers targeted them. Khan called such deaths "friendly fire."

In eastern Paktika province, meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition warplanes targeted a compound Sunday that also contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic school, resulting in the deaths of seven boys ages 10 to 16, said Gov. Akram Akhpelwak.

The governor said there normally is excellent coordination between the government and international forces but said he was not told of the missile strike in advance.

Authorities are working with foreign forces "to have better coordination and to not have these misunderstandings, but today we had a misunderstanding and the people will be unhappy," Akhpelwak told the Associated Press by telephone. "We will go to the area and discuss the issue with the people and apologize."

A coalition spokesman, Maj. Chris Belcher, said coalition troops had "surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside." Belcher, an American, accused the militants of not letting the children leave.

"If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that airstrike would have occurred," said Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, another coalition spokesman.

Reports of civilian deaths in Uruzgan were coming from various quarters.

One wounded man at the main Uruzgan hospital told the AP that 18 members of his family had been killed.

Mullah Ahmidullah Khan, the head of Uruzgan's provincial council, estimated the clashes in Chora killed 60 civilians, 70 suspected Taliban militants and 16 Afghan police.

"I have talked to President Karzai and asked him to send helicopters to ferry the wounded to Kabul," he said.

An official close to the governor who asked not to be identified when talking about preliminary estimates said 70 to 75 civilians were killed or wounded, while more than 100 Taliban and more than 35 police were killed.

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