Afghans say 52 civilians die in NATO attack; alliance disputes report

By Robert H. Reid, AP
Monday, July 26, 2010

Afghans: 52 die in NATO attack; alliance disputes

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government has said that 52 civilians, including women and children, died when a NATO rocket struck a village in southern Afghanistan last week — a report disputed by the international coalition.

The allegation Monday was raised as the founder of WikiLeaks claimed thousands of U.S. attacks could be investigated for evidence of war crimes, and a leading human rights group alleged that NATO has an “incoherent process” for dealing with civilian casualties.

Some of the more than 90,000 secret U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan war posted Sunday on the Web by WikiLeaks included unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings.

A statement by President Hamid Karzai’s office said an investigation by Afghan intelligence determined that a NATO rocket slammed into the village of Rigi in the Sangin district of Helmand province, one of the most violent areas of the country.

Karzai expressed his condolences in a telephone conversation with villagers and called on the U.S.-led alliance to make protection of civilians “their priority during their operations.”

The U.S.-led command said a joint NATO-Afghan investigation into the alleged attack “has thus far revealed no evidence of civilians injured or killed.”

“Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded,” said Rear Adm. Rick Smith, communications director for the command. “We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known.”

Investigators determined that NATO and Afghan troops came under attack Friday about six miles (10 kilometers) south of the village and responded with helicopter strikes, according to the statement.

“All fires were observed and accounted for and struck the intended target,” the statement said. “Coalition forces reported six insurgents killed in the strike, including a Taliban commander, a report verified by ground observation and intelligence sources.”

Last Saturday, a man named Abdul Ghafaar told The Associated Press that he brought seven children to a hospital in Kandahar after getting caught in the crossfire in Sangin the day before. Another man, Marjan Agha, said villagers began walking with a white flag toward NATO forces but that shots rang out and two people were killed on the spot.

Civilian casualties caused by international troops are a major source of friction between Karzai and his international partners, even though the United Nations says the Taliban are responsible for most civilian deaths.

The United Nations says at least 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009 — the deadliest year since the world organization began systematically collecting casualty data in 2007. The 2009 deaths represented a 14 percent jump over the previous year, the U.N. said.

But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange suggested that the number of civilian casualties was being underplayed, saying the secret files show that U.S. reports use “self-exculpatory language, redefine civilian casualties as insurgent casualties, downplay the number of casualties.”

The human rights group Amnesty International said the leaked documents point to an “incoherent process of dealing with civilian casualties” and called on NATO to provide a “clear, unified system of accounting for civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

U.S. and NATO commanders have insisted that allegations of civilian casualties are vigorously investigated — especially those after the 2009 shift in strategy limiting airpower and focusing on protecting civilians.


Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann, Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report.

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