Afghans: 52 civilians die in NATO attack

The international coalition disputes the report. Casualties a source of friction within the alliance

Published July 26, 2010 6:34PM (EDT)

The Afghan government said Monday that 52 civilians, including women and children, died when a NATO rocket struck a village in southern Afghanistan last week -- a report disputed by the international coalition.

The allegation was raised as the founder of WikiLeaks claimed thousands of U.S. attacks could be investigated for evidence of war crimes, and a leading human rights group alleged that NATO has an "incoherent process" for dealing with civilian casualties.

Some of the more than 90,000 secret U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan war posted Sunday on the Web by WikiLeaks included unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings.

President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the Afghan government was "shocked" that such a large number of documents were leaked but that most of the information wasn't new. He said Afghan officials studying the papers were particularly interested in ones describing incidents that resulted in civilian casualties.

A statement by Karzai's office said an investigation by Afghan intelligence determined that a NATO rocket slammed into the village of Rigi in the Sangin district of Helmand province, one of the most violent areas of the country.

Karzai expressed his condolences in a telephone conversation with villagers and called on the U.S.-led alliance to make protection of civilians "their priority during their operations."

The U.S.-led command said a joint NATO-Afghan investigation into the alleged attack "has thus far revealed no evidence of civilians injured or killed."

"Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded," said Rear Adm. Rick Smith, communications director the command. "We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known."

Investigators determined that NATO and Afghan troops came under attack Friday about six miles south of the village and responded with helicopter strikes, according to the statement.

"All fires were observed and accounted for and struck the intended target," the statement said. "Coalition forces reported six insurgents killed in the strike, including a Taliban commander, a report verified by ground observation and intelligence sources."

Last Saturday, a man named Abdul Ghafaar told The Associated Press that he brought seven children to a hospital in Kandahar after getting caught in the crossfire in Sangin the day before. Another man, Marjan Agha, said villagers began walking with a white flag toward NATO forces but that shots rang out and two people were killed on the spot.

Civilian casualties caused by international troops are a major source of friction between Karzai and his international partners, even though the United Nations says the Taliban are responsible for most civilian deaths.

Rising public anger over civilian deaths and injuries led former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to issue orders last year curbing the use of airpower and heavy weapons if civilians are at risk.

The U.N. says those rules, which have been maintained by McChrystal's successor, Gen. David Petraeus, helped reduce the percentage of civilian deaths attributed to the coalition and Afghan government forces by 30 percent last year from 2008. But the strict rules have led to complaints from soldiers that they give the military advantage to the Taliban and put U.S. and NATO lives at risk.

The United Nations says at least 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009 -- the deadliest year since the world organization began systematically collecting casualty data in 2007. The 2009 deaths represented a 14 percent jump over the previous year, the U.N. said.

But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange suggested that the number of civilian casualties was being underplayed, saying the secret files show that U.S. reports use "self-exculpatory language, redefine civilian casualties as insurgent casualties, downplay the number of casualties."

He said he believed that thousands of U.S. attacks could be investigated for evidence of war crimes, although he acknowledged that such claims would have to be tested in court. He told reporters in London that what's been released so far by WikiLeaks has "only scratched the surface" and that about 15,000 files on Afghanistan are still being vetted by his organization.

The human rights group Amnesty International said the leaked documents point to an "incoherent process of dealing with civilian casualties" and called on NATO to provide a "clear, unified system of accounting for civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

"The picture that emerges from the leaked data on civilian casualties is that NATO's leadership did not know exactly what was happening on the ground," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director. "The military logs bear out Amnesty International's long-standing concerns that there is no coherent or consistent system for accounting for civilian casualties."

U.S. and NATO commanders have insisted that allegations of civilian casualties are vigorously investigated -- especially those after the 2009 shift in strategy limiting airpower and focusing on protecting civilians.

Last May, four American officers -- two described as senior -- received career-damaging reprimands after an investigation found proper procedures were not followed in a February airstrike that killed 23 Afghan civilians in Uruzgan province.


Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann, Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report.

By Robert H. Reid

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