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More than 90 killed in coalition strikes: investigation

President Hamid Karzai has regularly appealed to the US- and NATO-led forces to take more care to avoid civilian casualties amid warnings they are costing the government and troops the goodwill of the war-weary Afghan people.
by Staff Writers
Herat, Afghanistan (AFP) Aug 24, 2008
An investigation has found that more than 90 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in coalition air strikes days ago, an Afghan government minister told AFP Sunday.

President Hamid Karzai ordered the investigation into Friday's operation in the western province of Herat after Afghan officials said high numbers of civilians were killed but the US-led coalition said only 30 militants died.

The toll is one of the highest for civilians since international troops arrived in Afghanistan to topple the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001 and comes after a string of such incidents, most of them involving air strikes.

"We went to the area and found out that the bombardment was very heavy, lots of houses have been destroyed and more than 90 non-combatants including women, children and elderly people have died," the Islamic affairs minister told AFP after his visit to Shindand district earlier Sunday.

"Most are women and children," said the minister, Nematullah Shahrani.

Shahrani said his investigation was continuing and he was due to meet US Special Forces who had been involved in the operation with Afghan troops and commandos.

"They have claimed that Taliban were there. They must prove it," the minister said. "So far, it is not clear for us why the coalition conducted the air strikes," he said.

He said his preliminary investigation had also found that there was no coordination between the Afghan and international troops involved.

Karzai meanwhile issued a decree ordering the "immediate removal" of the top army general for western Afghanistan and a commando commander after the "tragic air strike and irresponsible and imprecise military operation."

The two were fired for "negligence and concealing facts," a statement from Karzai's office said.

The strikes have drawn angry reactions from locals, who demonstrated on Saturday, torching a police vehicle and brandishing banners reading "Death to America."

A council of religious leaders for western Afghanistan demanded the trial of those involved in the deaths.

"Once again the enemies of Islam have stained their hands with the blood of innocent people ... we, the Muslim nation, will not accept their apologies this time," it said in a statement Sunday.

The strikes, from gunships, were near the Shindand airfield that is used by international forces.

Most of the roughly 15 houses destroyed were those of men who worked at the airstrip as security guards, district chief La'l Mohammad Omarzai told AFP.

And many of the dead had gathered to mark the 40th day since the killing of a militia commander in accordance with Afghan tradition, he said.

Karzai has regularly appealed to the US- and NATO-led forces to take more care to avoid civilian casualties amid warnings they are costing the government and troops the goodwill of the war-weary Afghan people.

The US-led coalition has said it would also investigate but was confident it had only killed rebels because its troops had gone into the area and identified the bodies.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Sunday though: "We regret the loss of life among the innocent Afghans who we are committed to protect."

The country's top rights group, which also has investigators on the ground in Shindand, says 900 civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks and military operations against rebels in Afghanistan this year.

In another recent incident, an Afghan investigation found that around 50 civilians, most of them women, were killed in coalition air strikes early July when they had gathered for a wedding in the east.

"The concern is that the government and international community will lose the credibility of the Afghan people," Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission chief executive director Hossain Ali Ramoz told AFP.

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