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US commander visits blast site, orders probe into NATO airstrike



Latest update : 2009-09-06

The top commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, US general Stanley McChrystal, is trying to stem public anger over a NATO airstrike that killed up to 90 people last Friday by ordering an investigation into the deadly blast.

AFP - The US commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan Saturday promised a full investigation into a NATO air strike, but stopped short of admitting any civilians had been killed in the bombing.

General Stanley McChrystal, in a statement broadcast on Afghan TV, said he had ordered a "complete investigation" into a NATO air strike on Friday in which Afghan officials said 90 people were killed and wounded.

"As commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people," McChrystal said in the 57-second video shown on private Tolo TV.

"I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously," he said of the incident that renewed an outcry over civilian casualties by Western troops during the eight-year war.

The video, made by ISAF and addressed to "the great people of Afghanistan," was broadcast throughout the day dubbed into local languages Pushtu and Dari.

McChrystal said NATO "launched an attack against what we believed to be a Taliban target" early Friday.

"I have ordered a complete investigation into the reasons and results of this attack, which I will share with the Afghan people," he said.

ISAF "has also offered emergency medical help and assistance to those who might have been injured," he said, shying away from confirming casualties.

Villagers in the northern Kunduz province, where the bombing happened, were mourning their dead at memorial services Saturday. President Hamid Karzai's office said 90 people were killed and injured.

Police and the interior ministry said up to 56 Taliban died and 10 more wounded, including a 12-year-old child, when a NATO air raid targeted the tankers after they were hijacked en route from Tajikistan to Kabul.

The strike destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by Taliban gunmen as villagers were clamouring to collect free fuel at the insurgents' invitation, witnesses said.

While officials insisted most of the dead were militants, Karzai -- leading the count in the country's fraud-tainted elections -- said that any targeting of civilians was unacceptable and sent a delegation to Kunduz to investigate.

In Kunduz hospital, where many of the injured were taken, Asmatullah was with his 10-year-old son Shafiullah, who he said had been with other children collecting fuel and whose legs were burned when the tankers were ignited.

Asmatullah, who like many Afghans uses one name, said he was awoken by the noise of the explosion "and when I went there I saw all the world was covered by killed and wounded people".

"All the dead were Taliban," he said.

The Taliban released a statement saying none of its militiamen were among the casualties.

"When the planes came our men knew that they would bomb the area, so all our people left," said the statement, received by email.

The air strike has underscored the increasing Taliban presence in parts of the north straddling a new supply route for foreign troops coming through Tajikistan in order to minimise dependence on the volatile route from Pakistan.

An AFP photographer described the atmosphere as tense, as anger at the foreign military presence bubbled under at the memorial prayer ceremonies.

The European Union fiercely criticised NATO over the bombing, saying it undermined efforts at nation-building they had begun to focus on.

"This was a big mistake," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters as he arrived for a second day of EU talks in Stockholm.

Germany's European Affairs Minister Guenther Gloser was mum on the issue after it emerged that German troops had ordered the air strike.

However, German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung defended the action, telling the Bild newspaper: "When just six kilometres (four miles) away from us, the Taliban take two fuel tankers, that represents a serious danger for us."

A state secretary in the German defence ministry, Thomas Kossendey, said the strike was aimed at preventing a Taliban suicide attack against German troops.

McChrystal this week sent an assessment of what he called the "serious" situation in Afghanistan to his NATO and US military superiors, a precursor to what is expected to be a request to President Barack Obama for more troops.

He put the protection of civilians at the heart of a revamped counter-insurgency strategy he hopes will win presidential and Congressional approval before the end of this year.

Date created : 2009-09-06