British Nato forces deny killing Afghan civilians
London Telegraph | January 13, 2007
Afghan authorities claimed yesterday that 13 civilians were killed when British forces ordered an air strike on an enemy target.
The chief of police in the Helmand province said 16 Taliban fighters and 13 civilians died in a Nato air strike in the key district where British troops have been fighting the Taliban for months.
Mohammed Nabi Mullahkhail said an unknown number of civilians, including women and children, were also wounded and several houses were damaged. He suggested the civilians were hostages of the militants.
A Nato spokesman said: "Our intelligence suggests all casualties are Taliban."
It was not known last night which nationality among Nato forces had flown the warplane or attack helicopter behind the air strike.
The raid came a day after British troops launched their biggest "pre-planned operation" against an insurgent headquarters in the Taliban stronghold of Garmsir district.
The reports of civilian casualties came at a sensitive time. Last week a senior British Nato commander, Brig Richard Nugee, said: "The single thing that we have done wrong and we are striving extremely hard to improve on next year is killing innocent civilians."
Last year saw a sharp rise in violence, in which 4,000 people died, more than 600 of them civilians killed by Nato or US military action, said the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
In a tearful address last month, President Hamid Karzai pleaded with foreign forces to use maximum caution after so many civilian deaths.
A United Nations report said there were "significant grounds for concern" after a convoy of Royal Marines shot seven civilians after they were targeted by a suicide bomber in Kandahar last month.
Lt Col Rory Bruce, a spokesman for British forces in Helmand, said that a thorough two-week reconnaissance mission that had preceded the dawn assault on the Taliban headquarters at Kostay had ensured there were no women or children in the compound.
British troops have been struggling to dominate the Garmsir district where two marines have recently lost their lives. The district, which lies near the porous Pakistani border, is a major conduit for opium smuggling and Taliban reinforcements gathering for an expected spring offensive.
Col Bruce said the operation was launched in response to the Taliban "attempting to keep us on the back foot".
In the area immediately to the south of Garmsir town a bridge that forms the main gateway to the south of the province has been dogged by insurgent snipers.
"Through intelligence we were able to pinpoint a compound that we considered to be a Taliban regional headquarters for the south of the province," said Col Bruce. He said up to 100 Taliban were seen using the compound.
At 3.30am on Thursday 100 marines and light dragoons crossed the Helmand river and engaged guards at the compound before the building was destroyed by Apache helicopters and fighter aircraft.
Troops then turned their fire on a second building which was also destroyed.
Col Bruce said that Apache pilots tracked Taliban fighters fleeing through a network of irrigation ditches and canals. But the pilots aborted the mission after the insurgents became mixed up with civilians coming out of doors.
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