NATO dispatched a team of investigators to a remote area of northeast Afghanistan on Sunday to look into claims that coalition forces killed 64 civilians there in recent air and ground strikes.
Gen Khalilullah Ziayi, police chief of Kunar province, said 15 men, 20 women and 29 children or young adults were killed during operations in Ghazi Abad district in the past four days. Kunar provincial governor, Fazlullah Wahidi, also said that 64 civilians were killed.
NATO said that video of the operations in Kunar show coalition troops targeting and killing 36 armed insurgents in a remote, rugged valley.
"We take allegations of civilian casualties very seriously," US army Col Patrick Hynes, director of NATO's operations center, said in a statement. "We are conducting an immediate assessment of these allegations and will report our findings." Civilians casualties have surged in recent months as insurgents have stepped up attacks.
A recent United Nations report said that it documented 2,412 conflict-related civilian casualties in the first 10 months of 2010. More than three-quarters of them were caused by militant activity, a 25% increase from the same period in 2009, the report said. At the same time, civilian casualties attributed to pro-government forces decreased.
Dr Asadullah Fazeli, public health director of Kunar province, said eight civilians, one man, three women and four children, were being treated for injuries received during operations in the district at a hospital in the provincial capital of Asadabad. Some were being treated for shrapnel wounds, he said.
Fazeli said that local officials had asked the International Committee for the Red Cross for assistance.
Also on Sunday, the Afghan government said that a brazen attack a day earlier in which five suicide bombers stormed a bank in eastern Afghanistan and killed 38 people indicated insurgents are increasingly going after "soft targets."
The bombers, all dressed in security force uniforms, attacked a Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad on Saturday just as many members of the Afghan security forces were collecting their pay. "Unfortunately, we see that there's a change of tactic in the terrorist attacks and they are targeting soft targets," places that are not heavily barricaded and fortified like government buildings or military compounds, interior ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary told reporters at a news conference in Kabul. He noted that two recent attacks in the capital also reflected the tactical change. In one, a suicide bomber attacked an upscale supermarket in Kabul on January 28, killing eight civilians; in the second, a bomber attacked a Western-style shopping mall on February 14, killing two security guards.
"In these kind of places, like City Center in Kabul and Kabul Bank in Jalalabad, these are all areas where mostly people are going to do daily business," Bashary said.
"No one would expect that they would attack such places like a bank or shopping mall," he said.
Among those killed in Saturday's attack in Jalalabad were 21 members of the Afghan national security forces, including 13 policemen and seven soldiers. The other 17 killed were civilians. A total of 71 people, mostly civilians, were wounded, he said. "Five armed suicide bombers entered the Kabul Bank building and started shooting," Bashary said. "The incident happened while Afghan security forces were there to get their monthly salaries. That is why the casualties were so high."
Since no one is allowed inside the bank with weapons, none of the Afghan policemen or soldiers collecting their pay had weapons to defend themselves.
He said that bank guards tried to prevent the militants from entering the building. A gunbattle broke out between the guards and the militants, who were all wearing suicide vests. During the fight, four of the attackers were killed and their suicide vests detonated. The fifth suicide attacker, a man from North Waziristan in Pakistan, was arrested and his vest was defused, Bashary said.