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Afghan civilian toll is lower than reported, U.S. officials say

Pentagon officials believe U.S. airstrikes killed 12 civilians after Afghan soldiers requested help in fighting Taliban militants. Afghan officials have said as many as 147 were slain.

May 09, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials believe that about 12 civilians were killed in U.S. airstrikes this week in Afghanistan, far fewer than numbers cited by Afghan provincial officials and the Red Cross.

Provincial officials said as many as 147 people were killed in fighting between insurgents and Afghan soldiers backed by U.S. forces. The International Committee of the Red Cross also has said there was a high civilian death toll.

Officials of the U.S.-led military command planned a news conference in Afghanistan today to discuss the incident.

The airstrikes on Monday, in the western province of Farah, were requested by Afghan army and police forces in the midst of battle against Taliban fighters and also killed an estimated 30 militants, Pentagon officials said.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Friday that American officials believed the civilian toll was grossly exaggerated as part of a public relations war.

"We are just too slow to get our message out on this. It has to be instant," the official said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly condemned the airstrikes. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials have offered repeated apologies for any civilian deaths.

U.S. officials last year played down reports of civilian casualties after a strike in the western village of Azizabad. Their subsequent investigation, however, showed that the civilian death toll was several times higher than what they had believed.

There seemed to be broader agreement in the Pentagon about the incident in Farah. Officials believe that the Taliban hoped to lure Afghan and U.S. forces into a battle in which civilians might be killed.

Military officials said the incident began after Taliban fighters hanged three government workers. Police were called in, but were ambushed by the militants. A quick-reaction force of Afghan soldiers, accompanied by U.S. trainers, arrived. But as fighting bogged down, the Afghan soldiers called for an airstrike, the senior military official said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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