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U.S.-led air raid kills seven Afghan children

Reuters | June 18, 2007
Sayed Salahuddin

At least seven children were killed in a U.S.-led coalition air strike on a religious school in Afghanistan, the coalition said on Monday, amid rising anger over civilian deaths from foreign military operations.

A U.S. military spokesman said some children who survived Sunday's raid said pupils had been forced by insurgents to stay inside the madrasa.

"We are truly sorry for the innocent lives lost in this attack," said Army Major Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, in a statement.

"We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building."

The air strike on the school occurred on the same day a suspected suicide bomber killed more than 20 people in an attack on a police bus in the heart of Kabul.

Other violence around the country made it one of the bloodiest days since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.

The U.S.-led and Afghan forces killed several dozen insurgents in a "prolonged battle" in southern Helmand province that day, the U.S. military said on Monday.

The forces were attacked by an unknown number of guerrillas, prompting the troops to call in air support. Two coalition soldiers were wounded, the U.S. military said, adding it had no report of civilian casualties.

Also on Sunday, in a separate incident, three coalition soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were killed after a roadside bomb hit their vehicle near Kandahar city, also in the south.

The air strike on the madrasa occurred in southeastern Paktika province near the Pakistan border.

The coalition said it had been part of an operation aimed at a compound containing a mosque and a madrasa thought to have been used as a safehouse by al Qaeda fighters.

"BEATEN AND PUSHED"

"Witness statements taken early this morning clearly put the blame on the suspected terrorists saying that if the children attempted to go outside they were beaten and pushed away from the door," the coalition said.

"Al Qaeda operatives have hidden amongst the people of Afghanistan in the past and caused unnecessary injury, and often death, to law-abiding citizens," it said.

There was no immediate way of confirming the coalition claims.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan recent months after the traditional winter lull, with foreign forces launching attacks against Taliban strongholds in the south and east and Taliban guerrillas hitting back with suicide bombings.

Al Qaeda is fighting alongside the Taliban to overthrow Afghanistan's Western-backed government and drive out foreign troops.

U.S.-led forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

More than 120 civilians have been killed by foreign troops in Afghanistan in recent months, according to the government and residents.

The deaths have sparked street protests calling for President Hamid Karzai's resignation and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. U.S. forces make up the bulk of the more than 50,000 foreign troops operating in the country.

Faced with resurgent Taliban attacks, growing frustration over corruption and lack of economic development, Karzai has warned that civilian deaths would have dangerous consequences for his government and the troops.

Nearly 6,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan over the past 17 months. About 1,500 have been civilians.

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