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U.S. Defends Airstrike on Afghan Village

Donna Smith / Reuters | May 25 2006

The U.S. military on Wednesday defended an airstrike earlier this week on a southern Afghan village that killed at least 16 civilians, saying its troops had the right to defend themselves against incoming fire.

Meanwhile, a new fire fight in southern Afghanistan, also involving coalition airstrikes, killed at least 24 Taliban militants and five Afghan soldiers Tuesday evening, officials said.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins apologized to the families of the civilians killed late Sunday and early Monday, saying "we never wanted this to happen." He said the coalition has offered assistance but didn't disclose any details.

"The ultimate cause of why civilians were injured and killed is because the Taliban knowingly, willfully chose to occupy homes of these people. We do everything we can to prevent killing civilians," he told reporters in Kabul.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an inquiry, the second time in five weeks the leader has complained about civilian deaths from airstrikes. The airstrike was one of the deadliest since the American-led invasion in 2001.

Collins said Tuesday that Taliban rebels have grown in "strength and influence" recently and now have an experienced cadre of troops in southern Afghanistan.

"There is a hard-core group of Taliban fighters, certainly numbering in the hundreds," he told reporters in Kabul. "We know for a fact that in recent weeks they have grown in strength and influence in some parts of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan" - the three southern provinces worst hit by the insurgency.

The military has confirmed the deaths of 20 militants in the assault late Sunday and early Monday on the village of Azizi and believes up to 60 more may also have died. Collins said some unidentified local Taliban leaders may be among the dead.

Collins said the troops did not know there were civilians in the homes when the U.S. military called in Air Force A-10 Warthogs to strafe the buildings with large-caliber bullets.

Human rights advocates criticized both the U.S. airstrike and the Taliban's tactic of hiding behind civilians.

"Taliban insurgent forces who take shelter in a civilian area knowing that it's going to draw hostile fire are violating international law," said Sam Zarifi, head of New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

The latest fighting Tuesday evening in the mountains of southern Uruzgan province came after a week of some of the deadliest violence since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001. As many as 336 people have died, mostly militants, according to Afghan and coalition figures.

Those figures are difficult to confirm independently because many of the scenes of fighting are closed off by authorities or are in extremely remote areas.

The fighting Tuesday evening began in a small village in Tirin Kot district before the militants fled higher into the mountains, where coalition aircraft bombed Taliban positions, said the Afghan military commander for southern Afghanistan, Gen. Rehmatullah Raufi.

A coalition statement said the fighting started after a joint Afghan-coalition patrol was attacked. The troops beat back the assault and forced the militants to retreat, it said.

Coalition airstrikes were called in toward the end of the battle, Raufi said. Maj. Scott Lundy, a coalition spokesman, confirmed that the coalition provided air support.

Raufi said up to 60 rebels died but the coalition said 24 were killed.

The number of casualties could not be independently confirmed. The coalition said six Afghan soldiers and three police were wounded, while Raufi said three Afghan soldiers were wounded.

Militants have stepped up attacks in the last several months, particularly in Afghanistan's southern and eastern regions near its border with Pakistan. Thousands more NATO forces are scheduled to move into the areas later this summer.

Collins said the militants were recruiting poor villagers.

"They prey upon people who don't have a lot of hope," he said. "These people may not believe much in the cause, but they need a job."

In other violence, a district chief, a judge and two guards from the Shahrak district of Ghor province were killed by a group of armed men who ambushed their car Tuesday evening, said Karimuddin Rezazada, the deputy governor of Ghor province.

In an apparent accident, a British military C-130 cargo aircraft carrying the country's ambassador to Afghanistan caught fire while landing at a southern airstrip but all on board escaped unhurt, officials said.

One of the plane's tires burst when it hit the ground at the airstrip in Lashkargah in Helmand province, sending debris into an engine, which then caught fire, said Sgt. Chris Miller, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. He said the incident was not the result of militant fire.

The Foreign Office in London said Ambassador Stephen Evans was going to Helmand to review postwar reconstruction efforts. He said the aircraft was destroyed by the fire.




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