Taliban militants attacked police posts in southern Afghanistan, triggering NATO airstrikes that left 25 civilians dead, including three infants and the local mullah, a senior police officer said Friday.
NATO said its overnight bombardment killed most of a group of 30 insurgents and blamed them for the deaths of any innocents, saying they had launched “irresponsible” attacks from civilian homes.
NATO acknowledged for the first time that civilians died in another battle that began last weekend in Uruzgan province, including some possibly in airstrikes. But a Dutch military chief accused the Taliban of killing Afghans who refused to join them during the three-day battle in the town of Chora.
Taliban fighters slashed the throats of eight women and hauled other people out of their homes to kill them, Gen. Dick Berlijn told reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, citing “solid reports” from Afghan police.
Stirring up anger
Although Taliban attacks have killed some 169 civilians in Afghanistan this year, the death of innocents at the hands of foreign forces often stirs the most anger among a population that expects NATO and U.S. troops to be more careful than insurgents.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized the mounting civilian toll from NATO and U.S.-led military operations as “difficult for us to accept or understand.”
The police posts came under fire late Thursday in Gereshk district of Helmand province, Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, provincial police chief, told The Associated Press.
NATO responded by calling in airstrikes, which killed 20 suspected militants, but also 25 civilians, including nine women, three babies and the mullah at the local mosque, Andiwal said.
Taliban used at least two civilian compounds for cover during the clashes, which lasted into early Friday, Andiwal said.
“NATO was targeting the areas where the fire was coming from ... and two compounds were completely destroyed, and the families living in those compounds were killed,” he said.
Villagers loaded the victims’ bodies onto tractor trailers to take them to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to prove they were innocent victims, but police stopped them, Andiwal said.
Risk to civilians probably 'deliberate'
NATO said the aircraft struck after insurgents attacked troops from its International Security Assistance Force nine miles northeast of Gereshk town.
“A compound was assessed to have been occupied by up to 30 insurgent fighters, most of whom were killed in the engagement,” an alliance statement said.
Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a NATO spokesman, expressed concern about the reports of civilian deaths, but claimed that as insurgents had chosen the time and location for the attack, “the risk to civilians was probably deliberate.”
“It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties,” he said.
If confirmed, the casualties in Gereshk would bring the number of civilians killed in NATO or U.S.-led military operations this year to 177, according to an AP tally of figures provided by Afghan officials and witness report.
Aid groups and other observers warn that anger at the mounting civilian toll is undermining support for the presence of foreign troops and setting back their goal of securing Karzai’s Western-backed government against a Taliban comeback.
Afghan officials have said more than 100 people — including militants, civilians and police — died in the battle at Chora before NATO and Afghan forces re-established control of the area after Taliban overran three police checkpoints.
Taliban fighters tried to force local civilians to fight alongside them, “and killed citizens who refused — they were hauled out of their houses by the Taliban and executed,” Berlijn said.
Eight women murdered?
“One police checkpoint commander saw two brothers murdered before his eyes by the Taliban,” he said. Another police report said “eight women were murdered — they had their throats slashed.”
Smith, the NATO spokesman, said some civilians “may have been killed at the hands of the Taliban, some may have been caught in crossfire and some may have died in airstrikes against enemy positions.” He said it was impossible to say how many people died in the battle.
“No matter the cause, we mourn any loss of innocent life. We are here to help provide safety and security to the people of Afghanistan, so even a single death is cause for sadness,” Smith said in a statement.
Karzai’s government has protested repeatedly at NATO’s frequent resort to massive firepower, and pleaded for closer coordination with Afghan officials to avoid civilian losses.
Karzai told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview broadcast Thursday that the issue of civilian deaths is “becoming difficult for us to accept or understand.”
“Every effort has to be made for it to stop ... every detail has to be worked out for it in order for civilians to stop being casualties,” Karzai told the BBC.