NATO accepts blame for accidentally killing 6 Afghan civilians in eastern Afghanistan

Friday, July 9, 2010

NATO accepts blame for killing 6 Afghan civilians

KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO took the blame on Friday for accidentally killing six civilians and wounding several others in eastern Afghanistan — just a day after five Afghan soldiers died in a botched coalition airstrike.

The back-to-back incidents come as international troops are trying to gain the trust of the Afghan people and improve coordination with Afghan security forces in hopes of handing over more responsibility for security to them nearly nine years into the war.

NATO said an assessment team, comprising both coalition and Afghan forces, determined that the civilians were killed when artillery fire fell short of its target Thursday in Jani Khel district of Paktia province. A full investigation is under way.

Initially, the coalition reported that eight Afghan civilians had been injured and taken to a nearby NATO outpost for treatment, and that one subsequently died. Later, it was determined that the bodies of those killed had been removed before NATO units arrived on the scene following the errant rounds, NATO said in a statement.

During the past two days, Afghan and NATO leaders have had meetings with local elders and community leaders in Jani Khel to discuss the incident.

NATO officials “offer sincere condolences to those affected and accept full responsibility for the actions that led to this tragic incident,” the coalition said in a statement.

The five Afghan soldiers were killed and two others were wounded Wednesday in an airstrike in the Andar district of Ghazni province.

The Afghan soldiers were launching an ambush before dawn against insurgents reportedly on the move when NATO aircraft began firing on them without warning, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.

The international force in Afghanistan blamed the friendly fire attack on a communication error. A coalition statement, also issued on Friday, said a joint investigation determined that the Afghan army unit gave the wrong location to international forces when it reported it would be operating in Ghazni.

When a coalition helicopter patrol noticed people digging beside a road where makeshift mines were a problem, the crew was cleared for an airstrike because the headquarters believed the Afghan soldiers were in another area of the province, NATO said.

Separately, Two NATO service members, including one American, died Friday in two different roadside bombs in the south, and an explosion ripped into a convoy of NATO and Afghan forces in an eastern province, killing one civilian and wounding nine others.

President Barack Obama has sent 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan to carry out the war’s counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses on securing the Afghan population and reversing Taliban gains. Violence is on the rise as troops ratchet up their pursuit of insurgent leaders.

Last month was the most deadly of the entire war for international troops, with 103 foreign forces killed.

While international forces patrol new areas to try to protect the population, their comrades in special forces, working with elite Afghan commandos, have been staging raids almost every night trying to weaken the insurgents’ operational capacity.

On Tuesday, coalition and Afghan special forces arrested a Taliban commander in the eastern province of Nangarhar, NATO said Friday.

The alliance said the man — whom it would not identify for security reasons — facilitated a recent influx of operatives for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militia accused in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and suspected in a string of more recent attacks in Afghanistan.

“Capturing this commander degrades the Taliban’s operational and facilitation capabilities,” said Col. William Maxwell, the director of the NATO-led international forces’ Combined Joint Operations.

Joint Afghan-international raids have led to the arrest of more than 100 Taliban figures since April, NATO says. In the past two weeks alone, at least 23 mid- and senior-level insurgent leaders and 217 lower-level fighters have been captured or killed, it says.

“We’ve stepped up operations over the last six months,” said NATO spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks. “What this is, is directly targeting the insurgent network, their leadership, their facilitators who bring in either weapons, supplies, money, resources.”

The campaign against the Taliban leadership echoes a strategy used successfully against both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq.

One senior Taliban commander recently killed was Ghulam Sakhi, who NATO said was a bomb-making specialist in Logar province who was also behind kidnapping plots, including the abduction and killing of the provincial security chief.

Afghan and coalition forces surrounded a compound he was sleeping in on June 25 and used a bullhorn to urge him to surrender. According to NATO, Sakhi emerged dressed as a woman and fired a pistol at the forces. He was shot and killed.

In the northern province of Kunduz, combined forces killed a Taliban weapons expert called Usman on June 27. NATO said he was a senior insurgent figure who also helped bring in fighters from Pakistan.

A suicide car bomb hit a NATO convoy Friday in the eastern province of Nangarhar, provincial spokesman Ahmad Zaiya Abdulzai said. One civilian died and nine were wounded in the attack near a bridge outside Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Photos from the scene show a coalition armored vehicle in flames, but NATO said no casualties among its troops were reported. A coalition spokeswoman said she had been told the convoy hit a homemade bomb.

In Ghazni province in the east, gunmen assassinated a prosecutor Friday morning. The coalition said that Khwajai Omari district prosecutor Mohammad Riza was killed outside his home, the latest targeted killing of Afghan officials, apparently by insurgents seeking to sow fear and undermine confidence in President Hamid Karzai’s government.

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