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U.S. acknowledges higher Afghan civilian toll in strike

Military reports that 33 noncombatants, not six, were killed in the August air attack.

October 09, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A new investigation of a U.S. airstrike on a village in Afghanistan in August has found that 33 civilians were killed, far more than the U.S. military had previously acknowledged, military officials announced Wednesday.

The military had originally concluded that six civilians and about 35 militants were killed. The new inquiry puts the number of dead militants at 22.

According to the investigation, conducted by U.S. Central Command, the civilian death toll in the Aug. 22 strike on the village of Azizabad was far lower than the 90 claimed by the United Nations and the Afghan government. Their assertions are questioned in the report, which argues that they "lack independent evidence" to support the higher death toll.

Both the first and the latest U.S. investigations conclude that the attack was a "valid military action," military officials said.

"This was a legitimate target," said a senior military official. "There is no culpability."

The higher number of civilian casualties is likely to renew questions among Afghan leaders about the U.S. military's use of force and to increase pressure to alter how airstrikes are used. But U.S. military officials are closely watching reactions to the new report in Kabul, the Afghan capital, hoping their fuller account of the events will mute criticism.

"We are deeply saddened at the loss of innocent life in Azizabad," Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the acting head of Central Command, said in a statement. "We go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan in all our operations, but as we have seen all too often, this ruthless enemy routinely surround themselves with innocents."

Later Wednesday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said in a statement that "although no military in history has gone to greater lengths to avoid civilian casualties, we clearly still need to operate with more care."

Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, asked for the new investigation after a grainy cellphone video seemed to show a much higher civilian death toll than military officials had acknowledged.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan, who led the new investigation, found that charges that U.S. or Afghan forces had violated the rules of engagement were "unsubstantiated."

"The use of force was in self-defense, necessary and proportional based on the information the on-scene commander had at the time," he wrote in the report.

The raid was based on "credible intelligence" that militants were gathering for a commemoration in Azizabad, the report says, and the on-scene commander made a positive identification of legitimate military targets before attacking. But the report says that militants, unbeknown to U.S. and Afghan forces, had taken up fighting positions near civilians.

The report concludes that of the 33 civilians killed, eight were men, three were women, and 12 were children, based on videos from the aftermath of the fighting. Ten others were not identified.

Callan's executive summary of the report suggests that the first probe was flawed and that the military should have worked with nongovernmental organizations to gather more evidence, such as videos.

The issue of civilians inadvertently killed by U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes has caused outrage in Afghanistan. In Kabul last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressed regret over the loss of life and urged U.S. commanders to quickly apologize and compensate families for wrongful deaths, rather than waiting for lengthy investigations.

However, according to Callan's report, the U.S. has made no condolence payments to the families of the slain civilians.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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