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Coalition probes possible Afghan ‘friendly fire’

Military authorities are probing two clashes in which Afghan civilians and police may have been killed by U.S.-led coalition forces, officials said Monday.
Policemen wounded during battle with Taliban lie on hospital beds in Kandahar
Afghan police officers wounded during a battle with Taliban militants recover in a Kandahar hospital on April 15.Ismail Sameem / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Military officials are probing two clashes in which Afghan civilians and police may have been killed by U.S.-led coalition forces, authorities said Monday.

The U.S. military has launched an inquiry into Saturday’s deaths of seven Afghan civilians after American forces using aircraft and artillery battled militants in a house and a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

The Canadian-led military in the southern Kandahar province also said it was investigating whether “friendly fire” was responsible for casualties sustained by Afghan police during fierce fighting Friday against Taliban forces.

Afghan authorities said 41 Taliban militants and six Afghan police were killed during the fighting in Sangisar, 25 miles southwest of Kandahar city, a former Taliban stronghold.

Surge in attacks
It was the bloodiest battle in a surge in rebel attacks that threatens the government’s shaky grip on the country more than four years after the fall of the Taliban.

The government has previously complained about heavy-handed tactics by U.S.-led forces, and the swift announcement of probes into the deaths appears to reflect greater openness on the part of the coalition, which says its forces go to extreme lengths to avoid innocent casualties.

Saturday’s clash in Kunar province’s Korangal Valley came during an ongoing operation involving 2,500 Afghan and coalition forces to flush out Taliban-led militants, one of the biggest offensives since the Taliban’s ouster for hosting Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. military said about eight to 10 militants fired small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. forces, who returned fire and called in support from warplanes and artillery.

It said several Taliban forces were killed and others were taking shelter in a house and nearby cave where civilians were living.

“Our surveillance indicated that there was a house with a cave nearby and that the insurgents were going back and forth between both, so we suppressed the area with a combined arms assault of close air support, artillery and direct fire,” U.S. military spokesman Maj. Matt Hackathorn said.

“But once we realized there were civilians in the area, we ceased fire.”

After the firefight ended, local village elders approached coalition forces to say seven people had been killed and three wounded, Hackathorn said.

“Whether our direct fire was responsible (for the casualties) or close-air support or if the victims were caught in the crossfire we just don’t know right now,” he told The Associated Press. “We are profoundly sorry about the loss of life.”

U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the coalition’s operational commander, called for an investigation “to determine the facts,” a military statement said Sunday.

New probe into major battle
On Monday, coalition forces opened a second investigation into Friday’s battle near Sangisar, a village where 50 to 60 Taliban members had been sheltering southwest of Kandahar city.

Afghan soldiers and police, backed by Canadian forces and coalition gunships, attacked the Taliban rebels after learning that they were planning to raid Kandahar city. Afghan officials said 41 Taliban militants and six Afghan police were killed.

A coalition statement said that during the “fierce fighting,” Afghan police “reported casualties, some possibly caused by friendly forces.”

“We are investigating the incident and we will work jointly with the government of Afghanistan to determine the events that took place during this fight,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. David Fraser.

“We will review all our procedures to ensure that we continue to coordinate with our Afghan partners against our common enemy.”