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Deadly U.S.-led raid in Afghanistan prompts new dispute

Afghan village elders say the early-morning strike left as many as 22 civilians dead. But U.S. military officials say 15 were killed, all Taliban fighters.

January 25, 2009|M. Karim Faiez and Laura King

KABUL AND ISLAMABAD — A fierce new dispute erupted Saturday over civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with village elders asserting that as many as 22 noncombatants were killed in an American-led raid and U.S. military officials insisting that 15 died and all, including a woman, were Taliban fighters.

The U.S. military said it would begin a joint investigation with Afghan authorities today.

Civilian casualties are one of the most serious points of friction between Western forces and the increasingly unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai.

The Afghan leader has repeatedly accused coalition troops of failing to adequately safeguard civilians during combat operations, whereas coalition commanders accuse the Taliban of deliberately putting innocents in harm's way. Karzai's latest public plea for restraint by Western forces came only hours before President Obama was sworn in Tuesday.

Like many such disputed incidents, the latest one took place in the dead of night in a remote location and involved the use of air power by U.S.-led troops.

The raid came between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the Mehtar Lam district of Laghman province, about 40 miles northeast of Kabul. American and other coalition troops have lately focused their efforts on securing several provinces adjoining Kabul, after a series of attacks close to the city last year left many Afghans with the sense that insurgents were tightening a noose around the capital.

A statement by the U.S. military said the strike targeted a Taliban commander "known to traffic foreign fighters and weapons into the region." As coalition troops approached his compound, the statement said, they came under fire from "multiple directions" by militants armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

"They were running around with weapons, firing at our people," said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. forces.

Village elders provided a much different account to provincial officials, saying there were no Taliban in the area, which they described as a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds. Women and children were among the 22 civilian dead, they said, according to Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, head of the provincial council.

Two other officials, including a spokesman for the Laghman governor, later said that 11 of the dead had been identified as civilians.

Rahmzai said the villagers made a dangerous predawn journey to his office to report the fatalities. The report could not immediately be independently verified because of distance and difficult terrain, but Julian, the U.S. military spokesman, said American and Afghan representatives would travel by helicopter to the site today.

The American military statement said searches of village compounds after the raid uncovered weapons caches that included automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, a hand grenade and ammunition. Many rural Afghans keep guns and ammunition in their homes, but Julian said that "RPGs would not be considered a family weapon."

The woman who was killed was advancing on troops with a rocket-propelled grenade, the military said. Western forces occasionally have reported encounters with female combatants, though their participation in battle is considered highly unusual.

The conflicting accounts of the raid were reminiscent of an August strike in the village of Azizabad in the western province of Herat, which caused an international outcry. Local authorities, supported by the United Nations, said 90 civilians were killed, most of them women and children. U.S. military officials at first said only militants had been killed, then said that six civilians and 35 militants had died.

Later, a high-level American investigation -- conducted after video emerged that appeared to corroborate villagers' claims that a number of women and children had died -- concluded that 33 civilians were killed, along with 22 militants.

Western military officials acknowledge that their operations sometimes result in accidental civilian deaths and injuries, but they say that the Taliban puts far more noncombatants at risk in a deliberate and systematic fashion.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force reported Saturday that insurgents a day earlier had launched rockets toward a Western base near the town of Asadabad, in eastern Afghanistan.

No troops were injured and the base was undamaged, but an Afghan girl was killed and two people were hurt, the military said in a statement.

"Yet again, this shows the insurgents' complete disregard for innocent Afghan civilians," said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for the international military force.

--

laura.king@latimes.com

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