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Airstrike killed 13 Afghan civilians, U.S. says

February 22, 2009|Reuters

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — U.S. forces in Afghanistan killed 13 civilians as well as three militants in an airstrike in western Afghanistan last week, the U.S. military said Saturday after an investigation of the incident.

The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign forces is a major source of tension between the Afghan government and its Western backers and has also caused a steady decline in public support for the presence of 70,000 foreign troops.

U.S. forces first said the airstrike Monday in the Gozara district of Herat province targeted a wanted insurgent commander and killed as many as 15 militants.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Michael Ryan traveled to the site of the bombing to lead an inquiry. Though weapons and ammunition were found, investigators concluded that only three of the dead were militants and the other 13 were civilians.

"We expressed our deepest condolences to the survivors of the noncombatants who were killed during this operation," a U.S. military statement quoted Ryan as saying at the site.

"Our inquiry in Herat demonstrates how seriously we take our responsibility in conducting operations against militant targets and the occurrence of noncombatant casualties," he said.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40% more than 2007, the United Nations said last week. A quarter of all civilian casualties, 552 people, died as a result of airstrikes by U.S. and NATO-led forces, it said.

President Obama last week ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, said it would be a "tough year" in Afghanistan, even with the extra troops.

Under pressure from a steady stream of public criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. and NATO forces agreed to cooperate more closely with Afghan forces and share more intelligence to cut the number of civilians killed.

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