Officials: 51 civilians killed in west Afghanistan

/ Source: The Associated Press

Regional officials said Wednesday that 51 villagers, some of them women and children, were killed in recent fighting in western Afghanistan. The U.S.-led coalition said it had no reports of civilian deaths.

The governor of southern Kandahar province also reported some civilians may have been killed during a clash there Tuesday night that left 13 dead, including two women.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeated his demands that more be done to prevent civilian casualties during military operations, saying he has been meeting regularly with officials of coalition and NATO forces trying to solve the problem.

“The intention is very good in these operations to fight terrorism. Sometimes mistakes have been made as well, but five years on, it is very difficult for us to continue to accept civilian casualties,” Karzai told reporters.

“We can no longer accept civilian casualties the way they occur,” he added. “It is not understandable anymore.”

The U.S.-led coalition said two military operations conducted between Friday and Sunday by U.S. and Afghan forces in western Herat province’s Zerkoh Valley killed 136 suspected Taliban — the deadliest fighting in Afghanistan since January.

The bloodshed set off anti-U.S. protests by villagers, and Mohammad Homayoun Azizi, chief of the Herat provincial council, said two council members who visited the area reported to him that 51 civilians were killed.

Delegation investigating assertion
The officials were part of a high-level delegation including lawmakers, police and intelligence officials who investigated the claim.

Azizi said the 51 bodies were buried in three different locations and included women and children. The dead included 12 relatives of a man named Jamal Mirzai, he said.

“People say the coalition troops should cooperate with the government, including Afghan forces. They should also be careful in civilian areas,” Azizi said.

Sgt. Dean Welch, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said Wednesday that its units were still operating in Herat’s Zerkoh Valley, but had no reports of civilian casualties yet.

In Kandahar, Gov. Asadullah Khalid said authorities were trying to determine if any civilians were killed during the overnight clash between insurgents and Afghan and foreign forces.

He said that when the Afghan-international team surrounded three vehicles carrying men, women and children, Taliban gunmen inside opened fire and the ensuing firefight killed 13 people and wounded 12. No casualties were reported in the Afghan-coalition force.

“We don’t know how many civilians or insurgents have been killed or wounded. We are investigating,” Khalid said.

An earlier statement from the U.S.-led coalition said five male insurgents were killed in the incident in Maruf district and three escaped. It did not give any details of civilian casualties.

Deepening mistrust
Reports of civilian deaths have deepened Afghans’ distrust of the international forces and of the U.S.-backed government as they try to combat a resurgent Taliban militia — itself accused of indiscriminate attacks that often claim civilian lives.

University students burned a U.S. flag during a demonstration Wednesday in eastern Nangarhar province to protest the deaths of five people, including a woman and teenage girl, during a coalition-led raid over the weekend.

It was the fourth straight day of anti-America protests in the country.

A recent Human Rights Watch report said NATO and U.S. operations, including the use of airstrikes and heavy weapons, killed at least 230 civilians last year. However, most of the 900 civilian fatalities during 2006 were from insurgent attacks, it said.