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US ambassador, Afghan president make surprise trip

world Updated: May 19, 2009 19:40 IST

AP
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America's new ambassador to Afghanistan expressed his condolences on Tuesday to the families of scores of people who died during a recent U.S.-Taliban clash.

Karl Eikenberry, who joined President Hamid Karzai on a surprise visit to the site of the battle, spoke before a gathering of more than 1,000 people at a mosque in the capital of western Farah province, said Abdul Gafar Watandar, the provincial police chief. Eikenberry's trip appeared to be an attempt to soothe tensions that followed the disputed May 4-5 battle in Farah's Bala Buluk district.

It is unclear exactly how many people died in Bala Buluk and under what circumstances. The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead. "I assure the people of Afghanistan that the United States will work tirelessly with your government, army, and police, to find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians and avoid tragedies like what occurred in Bala Baluk," Eikenberry said, according to a transcript of remarks provided by the U.S. Embassy.

"This incident began with your brave police and army, together with their American partners, battling the Taliban. But it ended in a terribly tragic way, with loss of civilian lives as well as your policemen," he said.

Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the death and destruction in two villages in Bala Buluk. An Afghan government commission said 140 civilians were killed, based on the testimonies collected from the villagers.

American officials say the Taliban held villagers hostage and that the casualty figure is exaggerated. They have not given their own estimate, however.

If the Afghan commission's toll is correct, it would be the largest case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.

Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its military operations. Past incidents have drawn immediate outcries from the government, which contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against the Taliban. America's top military officer warned Monday that the deaths of Afghan civilians caught up in U.S. combat operations could cripple President Barack Obama's revamped strategy for the seven-year-old war.

"I believe that each time we do that, we put our strategy in jeopardy," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We cannot succeed ... in Afghanistan by killing Afghan civilians."