Image: Grave of 3 boys
Rafiq Maqbool  /  AP
Villagers sit near the grave of three young boys killed in an airstrike during fighting in Afghanistan.
updated 3/14/2007 10:17:39 PM ET 2007-03-15T02:17:39

The American colonel bowed his head at the fresh dirt graves of three young boys marked by brightly colored martyrs' flags. Then he sat down next to the boys' fathers, expressed his condolences and handed them an envelope full of cash.

Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, commander of a paratrooper regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division, said his visit Wednesday to a simple mud-brick home was a sign of respect and an attempt to mend relations after the boys were mistakenly killed during the latest NATO offensive.

"I doubt many countries in the world, particularly that have been fighting here, go to these lengths to show the people we're sorry when bad things happen, even in very complex situations when you have the enemy fighting among the people," he said.

"I doubt the Soviets did this," he added, referring to fighting during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The display of sorrow -- and compensation -- was part of a campaign to calm Afghan anger over civilian deaths. While the U.S. made payments after a military truck crash last May set off rioting in Kabul, any restitution for deaths of civilians from combat have not been publicized.

The three youngsters were killed by an airstrike Saturday. Mennes said his unit, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, launched an attack after intelligence indicated Taliban fighters had gathered.

Civilian deaths have been a growing problem during the U.S. and NATO fight against a resurgent Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly pleaded with Western forces to avoid harming innocent Afghans, fearing deaths will turn people against the international effort and breed vengeance among aggrieved tribal families.

An Associated Press tally indicates the deaths of about 40 civilians this year could be attributed to NATO or U.S. action, based on figures from military and Afghan officials. That is out of a total of 83 civilian deaths from combat counted by AP.

Fighting among the people
AP counted at least 95 Afghan civilians killed during assaults by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition in 2006. It tallied 512 total civilian combat deaths for the year.

Earlier this month, Afghan witnesses and officials said U.S. military action may have killed up to 19 civilians in one day -- up to 10 shot by Marines after being attacked by a suicide bomber March 5 and nine killed in an airstrike when Taliban fighters took refuge in a home.

U.S. commanders say Taliban fighters often attack American troops and then hide in civilian homes, putting women and children in harm's way as they try to escape retaliation, or even to cause the deaths of innocent people as a way to kindle anger against foreign troops.

Mennes said it was possible the three boys killed Saturday were used as human shields. It was not known whether any Taliban fighters died in the airstrike, and he declined to share more details, citing military security.

"I can't say conclusively" that the kids were used as human shields, he said. "But the Taliban does fight among the people."

The 82nd Airborne paratroopers in this mountainous region straddling Helmand and Kandahar provinces are providing a security cordon for the heart of NATO's newest offensive, Operation Achilles. British soldiers are carrying out the heaviest fighting just across a mountain pass from Chinar in Helmand province.

The Americans are the first international soldiers stationed in the area since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. U.S. commanders describe this as Taliban country, and lush green opium poppy fields grow everywhere -- including across from Chinar's police station.

After a lunch with local elders at Chinar's police compound, Mennes walked through the village accompanied by a security detail.

As children peeked from behind doors, the U.S. contingent stopped at the village cemetery, where three fresh mounds were covered in stones and marked by six tall sticks with colored pieces of cloth tied to them -- a sign that a "martyr" was buried there.

Four elderly men in turbans said a short prayer, then Mennes, his command sergeant major and an Afghan army commander met with the fathers of the dead boys, two of whom were brothers.

A prayer was said by one of 15 turbaned men squinting into a setting sun, and the Afghan officer told the gathered men: "May God bless the boys and God bless the family and may no tragedy like this happen again."

‘Compensate a little bit for the loss’
"I know there is nothing we can do to ease your pain," Mennes told the fathers, one of whom continually dabbed his eyes with his scarf. "We just came to express our condolences and compensate a little bit for the loss."

Earlier, Mennes gave the family US $600 (euro455) to buy food for visiting friends and relatives. On Wednesday, he gave the fathers US$6,000 (euro4,551) more, telling them the US$2,000 (euro1,517) gift for each child was on behalf of the Afghan government.

U.S. soldiers patrolling in the valley earlier ran over a farmer's crops in the area, and Mennes said he would also be paid compensation.

He said soldiers try to be "polite and respectful" during missions, and try to make up for it when things go wrong. He said he is always aware of the human aspect of war.

"This is not like going to work at Wal-Mart," Mennes said. "Everything we do affects so many people. We try to stay extremely conscious of the effects we have both on our enemy and the people we're trying to help."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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