More than 100 people, including militants, civilians and police, have died in three days of fierce clashes between NATO forces and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Monday.
Some preliminary estimates of the death toll exceeded 200 people, but precise numbers were not immediately available because of the continued fighting in Uruzgan province.
In eastern Afghanistan, U.S.-led coalition jets bombed a compound suspected of housing al-Qaida militants, killing seven boys and several insurgents, officials said.
A senior Afghan Defense Ministry official has said that civilian deaths are the main concern of Afghans, and President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for foreign troops to do more to prevent civilian casualties.
Mullah Ahmidullah Khan, the head of Uruzgan’s provincial council, said the clashes in the Chora district had killed 60 civilians, 70 suspected Taliban militants and 16 Afghan police.
An official close to the Uruzgan governor, who asked not to be identified when talking about preliminary estimates, said 70 to 75 civilians had been killed or wounded, while more than 100 Taliban and more than 35 police had been killed.
Lt. Col. Maria Carl, a spokeswoman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said there is “definitely a large engagement that has been going on there” for the last three days. She could not confirm casualty figures.
Dutch soldier killed in skirmish
Netherlands defense chief Gen. Dick Berlijn told reporters in the Netherlands that a Dutch soldier was killed in a battle that started over the weekend with Taliban fighters near Chora.
Dutch troops had been providing backup to local forces in and around Chora since Saturday, when several hundred Taliban fighters began launching attacks, particularly targeting police posts, he said.
“The town is considered of strategic importance by the Taliban,” Berlijn said.
Dr. Hajed Noor, a doctor at Uruzgan’s main hospital in the provincial capital, Tirin Kot, said 34 people wounded in the battles had been brought to the hospital, including nine women and seven children. He said his patients reported that many other wounded people were still in Chora district and could not make it to the hospital because of the fighting.
‘Eight bombs fell in my village’
Speaking by phone from a hospital bed, Janu Akha, 62, said his village, Qala-i-Raghm had been hit on Saturday.
“Eight bombs fell in my village,” Akha said. “On Sunday my relatives buried 18 members of my family, including women and children. More than 15 other members of my family are wounded, 10 of whom are women,” he said.
Another doctor, Mohammad Fahim, said: “Most of the people who were killed are still there (in Chora). They are not bringing the bodies here, so that is why we do not know how many have been killed.”
On Sunday in Paktika province, in an operation backed by Afghan troops, the warplanes targeted a compound that also contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic school, resulting in the death of seven boys, ages 10 to 16.
Paktika Gov. Akram Akhpelwak said there normally is strong coordination between the government and the coalition and NATO, but that he was not made aware of the missile strike on the madrassa beforehand.
Local authorities are working with NATO and coalition troops “to have better coordination and to not have these misunderstandings, but today we had a misunderstanding and the people will be unhappy,” Akhpelwak told The Associated Press by telephone. “We will go to the area and discuss the issue with the people and apologize to the people.”
Coalition troops had “surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building,” said Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. He accused the militants of not letting the children leave the compound that was targeted.
“If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that airstrike would have occurred,” said Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, another coalition spokesman.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it has sent a team with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to investigate.
Kabul suspect held
In the capital, police said they have arrested a suspect in connection with the deadly bus bombing that killed at least 35 people, most of them police trainers.
The explosion was the fifth suicide attack in Afghanistan in three days, part of a sharp spike in violence around the country.
The suspect, whose name and nationality were not disclosed, had pictures of the slain Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah in his phone, as well as text messages from a foreign country, Paktiawal said.
Sunday’s enormous blast, which raised the specter of an increase in Iraq-style bombings with heavy casualties, was at least the fourth attack against a bus carrying Afghan police or army soldiers in Kabul in the last year. The bomb sheared off the bus’ metal sidings and roof, leaving a charred frame.
Condemning the Kabul attack, Karzai said the “enemies of Afghanistan” were trying to stop the development of Afghan security forces, a key component in the U.S.-NATO strategy of handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan government one day, allowing Western forces to leave.
A self-described Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said a Taliban suicide bomber named Mullah Asim Abdul Rahman caused the blast. Ahmadi called an Associated Press reporter from an undisclosed location. His claim could not be verified.