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Karzai urges coalition troops to prevent Afghan civilian deaths

February 20, 2010|By Laura King | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — As a major offensive in southern Afghanistan by U.S., British and Afghan troops entered its second week, President Hamid Karzai on Saturday made an emotional appeal for coalition troops to strive to prevent civilian deaths.

The president's remarks, in a speech to Afghan lawmakers, came as the Western military officials announced that troops in Nad Ali, the district where the town of Marja is located, had shot and killed an Afghan man a day earlier, mistakenly believing he was menacing a patrol with an improvised explosive device.

NATO says 16 civilians have been accidentally killed by Western troops in the Marja offensive, which began in the early hours of Feb. 13. Afghan human rights groups put noncombatant deaths at about two dozen.

Thousands of Afghan civilians, frightened by the fighting, have fled their homes in and around the town and are sheltering elsewhere in Helmand province. But many residents say insurgents have prevented them from leaving, warning there are buried bombs everywhere.

Karzai, addressing Parliament as it opened its winter session, held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl he described as being the only surviving member of a family of 12, killed when NATO rockets hit an Afghan home on the second day of the offensive.

"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," the Afghan president said.

U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of all Western forces in Afghanistan, ordered troops taking part in the offensive to exercise all possible care. Field commanders say they are doing their best to follow strict rules of engagement, even if it means, for example, holding their fire if a suspected insurgent has managed to throw away his weapon.

Karzai has often angrily rebuked Western forces over civilian deaths and injuries. In Saturday's speech, however, he thanked McChrystal for helping reduce the civilian toll.

A force spearheaded by U.S. Marines is still struggling to gain full control of Marja, which for years had been a Taliban stronghold. Scattered battles raged again Saturday, military officials said, with coalition troops taking fire from Taliban snipers and uncovering yet more buried bombs.

A statement from NATO's International Security Assistance Force described the latest clashes as "difficult," particularly to the northeast and west of Marja, and noted that "insurgent activity is not limited to those areas."

In his speech, Karzai again urged Taliban foot soldiers to lay down their weapons and rejoin Afghan society.

"End this war. Return to your homes and help rebuild," said the Afghan leader, whose longtime efforts to "reintegrate" disaffected fighters have recently won the backing of the international community.

Officials in the Karzai government have expressed hopes that a recent string of setbacks to the Taliban leadership may encourage low-level fighters to leave the insurgency. The top Taliban military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured earlier this month in Pakistan, and several other senior figures, including the Taliban "shadow governor" of Kunduz province, were also recently arrested there.

laura.king@latimes.com

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