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Afghanistan's Karzai condemns civilian deaths

world Updated: Aug 23, 2008 13:22 IST
AP
Western Afghanistan

The US-led coalition said on Saturday that it would investigate allegations of civilian deaths during a battle in western Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior says that 76 civilians were killed in strikes in the Shindand district of Herat province. U.S. coalition officials say that Thursday's strikes killed 30 militants, including a Taliban leader.

On Saturday, President Hamid Karzai condemned the U.S. operation and said it hadn't been coordinated with local security officials in Azizabad village. Karzai said in a statement that "at least 70 innocent civilians, most of them women and children" were killed. However, American officials say U.S. and Afghan soldiers investigated the site of the bombing afterward and know the exact number of militants killed.

"Obviously there's allegations and a disconnect here. The sooner we can get that cleared up and get it official, the better off we'll all be," said U.S. coalition spokesman 1st Lt. Nathan Perry. "We had people on the ground."

The Interior Ministry's claim also contradicted the Afghan Ministry of Defense's version of the battle. Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said 25 militants and five civilians were killed in the attack.

Karzai said on Saturday that the Afghan government would soon announce "necessary measures" to prevent civilian casualties in the future. Karzai has long demanded that U.S. and NATO officials take care to not harm civilians during its military operations, an issue that undermines the Afghan government and causes great anger in Afghan villages.

The competing claims by the U.S. coalition and the two Afghan ministries were impossible to verify because of the remote and dangerous location of the battle site.

Complicating the matter, Afghan officials are known to exaggerate civilian death claims for political payback, to qualify for more compensation money from the U.S. or because of pressure from the Taliban.

U.S. military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green said a thorough assessment was done after the battle and the coalition knows it killed 30 militants, including a high-ranking Taliban leader.

"We stand by our account and our reports and what we know, and I can't reconcile why (the Interior Ministry) would have a different figure," Nielson-Green said.

The operation was launched after an intelligence report that a Taliban commander, Mullah Siddiq, was inside the compound presiding over a meeting of militants, said Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman. Siddiq was one of those killed during the raid, Azimi said.

More than 3,400 people mostly militants have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to figures from Western and Afghan officials.