Dozens of civilians killed in US strike, police say

Afghan police claim that US-led air strikes killed more than 100 civilians during operations against insurgents in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington for meetings with US President Barack Obama.


AFP - Police in Afghanistan said Wednesday that US-led air strikes against insurgents had killed 100 people, most of them civilians, in one of the deadliest such attacks in nearly eight years.

The US military opened an investigation into the operation overnight Monday into Tuesday in the remote western province of Farah, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered his government to probe reports of high civilian casualties.

"During the aerial bombardment and ground operations, more than 100 people have died," western Afghanistan police spokesman Abdul Rauf Ahmadi told AFP, basing his information on reports from police, the Red Cross and locals.

"Twenty-five to 30 of them are Taliban, including from Chechnya and Pakistan, and the rest are civilians including children, women and elderly people," he said.

Teams from the Afghan government, international forces and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would travel to the area to investigate, he added.

Deputy provincial governor Mohammad Younus Rasouli said that he had seen the bodies of 20 children brought by villagers to the provincial capital, also called Farah.

The clashes and air strikes were in volatile Bala Buluk, district about 600 kilometres (350 miles) southwest of Kabul.

Provincial police chief Abdul Ghafar Watandar also said 100 people had been killed in two villages in the district, at least 30 of them civilians.

"Now we are trying to find out what number of them are combatants and what number are civilians," he said.

Taliban were in control of the area, making it difficult to verify numbers, Farah province governor Rohul Amin said.

Insurgents who attacked the security forces took shelter in civilian homes, accounting for at least some of the civilian casualties, he said.

"Dozens of people were killed, including women and children," ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry told AFP.

One of the dead was a community volunteer for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, who was killed along with 13 members of his family, she said.

Karzai said in a statement that he would raise the issue with US President Barack Obama when he meets him in Washington later Wednesday.

He "ordered the ministry of interior and relevant authorities to investigate possible civilian casualties," the statement said.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was due in Kabul later Wednesday, the Afghan government said.

The killing of ordinary Afghans in the fight against extremists is a main source of tension between Karzai and the United States, on which fragile Afghanistan depends for security and aid.

A US military team went out to the area on Wednesday to see what had happened, spokesman Colonel Greg Julian told AFP.

"There was an Afghan police unit that came under fire from insurgents after this execution of three local citizens out there and they called for back-up support," Julian said.

"There was a significant amount of fire coming from certain areas and they called in air support to eliminate that."

Afghan officials said Tuesday the fighting had erupted after Taliban on Monday publicly executed three Afghan civilians on allegations of spying.

There are roughly 70,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, more than half of them from the United States, which has pledged an extra 21,000 to tackle the extremist threat.

The ICRC and non-government groups have warned that the deployment of extra troops would likely lead to increased fighting and more civilian casualties.

Last year was the deadliest for civilians caught up in the conflict, according to UN figures that say nearly 2,200 were killed, about 55 percent in insurgent attacks and nearly 40 percent by pro-government force action.

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