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Airstrike in Afghanistan kills civilians

Nine family members die in the second such incident in less than 24 hours involving U.S. military firepower.

March 06, 2007|Shafiqullah Azimi and Laura King | Special to The Times

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — For the second time in less than 24 hours, the U.S. military on Monday acknowledged involvement in an incident that caused multiple civilian deaths in Afghanistan -- this time, an airstrike on a rural compound that killed nine people from the same family, according to Afghan authorities.

A day earlier, at least eight civilians died and dozens of others were wounded when U.S. troops opened fire on a busy highway after a suicide bomber attacked their convoy.

In both instances, U.S. military officials blamed insurgents for placing civilians in harm's way by deliberately staging attacks that were certain to draw American retaliation, and then using civilians as cover.

But the back-to-back incidents appeared to be raising tensions between allied forces and the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, which is often the target of popular anger when civilian deaths occur.

Karzai called Monday for an investigation of the shootings that took place Sunday morning on a stretch of highway in eastern Afghanistan, near the city of Jalalabad. The president's office said he condemned the incident.

The U.S. military said its troops fired in self-defense after a multi-pronged ambush by insurgents, but witnesses said the American gunfire after the explosion appeared to have been indiscriminate, some of it taking place miles from the blast site.

American military officials said in a statement that Sunday's late-night airstrike on a compound in the thinly populated village of Jabar, about 50 miles northeast of Kabul in Kapisa province, was called in after a nearby U.S. firebase came under rocket attack.

Men armed with automatic weapons were seen entering the compound, which was then targeted with a pair of 2,000-pound bombs, the military said in a statement.

The bombs pulverized the mud-brick structures inside, according to witnesses.

A U.S. spokesman said insurgents had deliberately put the compound's inhabitants in danger.

"These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces," said Lt. Col. David Accetta.

The American statement acknowledged "unconfirmed reports" of nine fatalities in the airstrike. Afghan officials said the dead were women, children and an elderly man, all members of a single clan.

Though the circumstances of the highway shootings and the compound bombardment were different, both underscored how a conventional army's strengths can become its vulnerabilities when fighting a guerrilla foe.

Because suicide attacks against allied convoys are so commonplace, troops sometimes react to even the threat of an attack with overwhelming force. Scores of Afghan motorists have been shot when they ventured too close to convoys and ignored or did not understand warnings to move away.

Use of "close air support," or precision bombardment, has also become a crucial component of the allies' battlefield strategy.

But allied troops under fire in remote areas sometimes unwittingly call in airstrikes against an area where insurgents have taken cover among civilians or have melted away altogether, leaving innocent villagers behind and exposed to bombs.

Over the last several years, most cases in which large numbers of Afghan civilians were accidentally killed involved airstrikes gone awry.

The latest rash of civilian casualties comes as both sides are bracing for an expected warm-weather spike in confrontations between allied troops and Taliban-inspired insurgents. Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since the Taliban movement was toppled more than five years ago, with more than 4,000 people killed.

NATO officials say the Taliban has been able to finance its resurgence in part with money from Afghanistan's enormous opium production. On Monday, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime announced that this year's poppy crop could exceed last year's, which set a record.

Much of the cultivation is centered in southern Helmand province, an insurgent stronghold that has been the scene of heavy fighting over the last year.

*

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Azimi reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.

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