Afghan Official Says NATO Airstrike Killed 14 Civilians
By RAY RIVERA
Published: May 29, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials said Sunday that a NATO airstrike targeting Taliban fighters killed 14 civilians, all of them women and children, in the southern province of Helmand on Saturday night.
NATO said it was investigating.
Witnesses said an unknown number of bombs fell around 11 p.m., landing on two family compounds in the Salam Bazaar area of Nawzad district, a small farming community about 50 miles north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
Five girls, seven boys and two women were killed as they slept, the provincial governor’s office said in a statement. Another six people were wounded.
Grieving friends and relatives drove through the night transporting eight bodies to the provincial hospital in Lashkar Gah, a resident of the village, Haji Janan, said. The other bodies remained buried under the rubble as villagers tried to dig them out, he said.
The governor’s office released photographs of men carrying the dusty, bruised bodies of dead children swaddled in sheets into the hospital.
“We brought the dead bodies to show it to the officials, to show that the dead are innocent civilians, not the Taliban,” Mr. Janan said.
Lt. Tyler Balzer, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force, said several bombs were dropped but said he could not provide more specifics — including whether helicopters or other aircraft were used — until the investigation was complete.
“We are aware of the governor’s claims and there were airstrikes in the area,” he said, “And right now we have an assessment team on the ground working with the Afghan government.”
Local officials said the airstrike came in response to an insurgent attack on a nearby Marine base earlier in the night, but that the strike hit the wrong homes.
“The office of the provincial governor strongly condemns this deep sorrow incident,” the office said in an English version of its statement. The statement also requested NATO to stop “air strikes that result in civilian casualties.”
NATO was also investigating an air assault last week in Nuristan province that drove out Taliban fighters after they had overrun part of a district center. The joint assault of NATO soldiers and Afghan commandos called in airstrikes as they came under fire in the district center of Do Ab, killing more than 10 insurgents, NATO said at the time.
But provincial officials say NATO helicopters also killed more than 20 police officers dressed in civilian clothes. Qazi Anayatullah, head of the provincial council, said that as coalition forces arrived, the Taliban fled, leaving their white flags flying over police checkpoints they had overrun. When the officers dressed in civilian clothes re-entered the checkpoints, the flags were still flying, and NATO helicopters bombed them, he said.
“They mistakenly thought they were Taliban because the police were wearing local dress,” Mr. Anayatullah said.
Lt. Balzer said a NATO assessment team had been on the ground several days now. “We’re hoping a clearer picture will come out soon and we’ll be able to release the findings,” he said. But the incident points to the murky nature of the war and the difficulty distinguishing between Taliban fighters and armed officers or civilians dressed in traditional garb.
In February, Afghan investigators accused NATO of killing 65 civilians in airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan in what, if true, would have been one of the worst cases of civilian casualties in the war. But NATO maintained that the people were killed were insurgents, and there were conflicting reports, even among the Afghan investigators, about the number of casualties.
Civilian deaths have been one of the most sensitive issues in the war — and NATO has made efforts to reduce them. According to the United Nations, insurgents caused about 75 percent of all civilian casualties last year, the deadliest year for civilians in the country.
The latest episode came at an emotionally turbulent time. As images of the children killed in the Salam Bazaar attack were broadcast on television Sunday, the nation was still reeling from a suicide attack a day earlier at the governor’s compound in the northern province of Takhar. The attack killed six, including the northern region’s senior police commander, Gen. Daoud Daoud, a revered figure in the region from his days as an anti-Taliban fighter.
His death complicates transition efforts as NATO forces begin transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces in seven areas of the country this July. One of those areas is Mazar-i-Sharif, where General Daoud was based.
In a statement Sunday, the United States Embassy in Kabul said General Daoud “was in the forefront of his country’s efforts to defeat the insurgents and bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
His death could further fuel sentiment among northern leaders opposed to President Hamid Karzai’s fledgling efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.
Sensitive to that concern, the president’s spokesman, Wahid Omar, blamed foreign fighters for planning and carrying out the string of terrorist-style attacks that have jolted the country in recent months, trying to deflect blame from Afghan Taliban, even though the Taliban have claimed credit for most of the attacks.
“No one from Afghanistan carries out such attacks,” he said. “All evidence shows these operations are planned outside Afghanistan and led form outside Afghanistan.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.