KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan government and foreign military officials sparred Tuesday over reports that 10 civilians died during a military operation – claims that further inflamed public sentiment against the international military presence as thousands more troops prepare to deploy.
Also Tuesday, NATO said a U.S. service member died in a shooting in western Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was angered over the deaths of innocent civilians on Sunday in a village in the Narang district of Kunar province that he said included eight young students. A NATO official said initial reports from troops involved in the fighting said the victims were insurgents.
Civilian deaths are one of the most sensitive issues for foreign troops in Afghanistan. Although far more civilians are killed by the Taliban, those blamed on international forces spark widespread resentment and undermine the fight against the militants.
Earlier this year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commanding officer in Afghanistan, gave his forces a new set of orders aimed at minimizing civilian casualties, though he acknowledged that doing so “entails risk to our troops.” But alienating the Afghan population is a far greater risk, he said.
Shoring up Afghan support is especially important now, as some 37,000 U.S. and NATO troops will begin deploying to the country in the coming months.
The reported incident in Kunar is the most serious allegation of accidental killings of civilians by Western forces since early December, when Afghan officials said 12 civilians were killed in an airstrike in neighbouring Laghman province. NATO initially denied the charge, but days later, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, second-in-command to McChrystal, acknowledged that an alliance-led attack might have resulted in civilian deaths. An investigation into the incident continues.
A delegation of government officials and lawmakers, appointed by Karzai, met with local officials in Kunar province on Tuesday to investigate the latest allegations.
“The president was deeply saddened and angry when he heard this news,” Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omar said.
In an illustration of anti-Western sentiments in the country, an independent youth group planned a demonstration Wednesday in Kabul “against killing of civilians, especially the recent killing of students in Kunar by foreign forces.”
A NATO official said that Sunday’s mission in Kunar was a joint, ground operation involving U.S. and Afghan forces and no aircraft was used. The official sought anonymity so as not to interfere with coalition’s involvement in the Afghan-led investigation of the incident.
The planned mission was against an insurgent network tracked for some time that was believed responsible for homemade explosive attacks on Afghan and international forces, the official said.
Based on weapons and improvised explosive device components found at the scene, the troops involved in the mission confirmed the deaths of nine insurgents, who were all young males, he added.
Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the local border police commander, also said Tuesday that those killed were insurgents.
He told The Associated Press by telephone that he had received photos from the forces involved in the fighting that show the young victims were armed militants planning attacks against international troops.
“I don’t see civilians in the photos,” he said. “The coalition said our target was insurgents who were planning to sabotage the security of the area. This operation looks like a successful operation. It seems like the men, ages between 25 and 30, were meeting in a room when they were struck.”
The general conceded that Afghan civilians often get killed unintentionally in such operations.
However, Mohammed Hussain, head of administration of the Chawkay district in Kunar province, said he was in the village when the fighting took place, and all the victims were civilians. He said seven of the dead were from the same family.
Hussain said coalition forces first surrounded the village in the early morning hours on Sunday before they attacked the house in which “only innocent civilians lived.”
“It is clear there was no insurgency and that they were students who were not carrying weapons,” he told the AP. “One of the victims was a 17-year-old who was killed together with his three brothers.”
NATO offered no additional details on the U.S. service member killed Tuesday, but Afghan Gen. Jalander Shah Bahnam said the American was killed and two Italian soldiers were injured when an Afghan soldier opened fire on a base in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province.
Bahnam, the corps commander for the Afghan National Army’s western district, said NATO soldiers tried to prevent the Afghan soldier from approaching an area where an allied helicopter was about to land. He said the incident was still being investigated, but that initial reports indicated that the Afghan soldier became angry and opened fire. Allied troops and the soldier’s Afghan colleagues returned fire, injuring him, Bahnam said.
Also, the Afghan intelligence service said Tuesday that four people have been arrested in connection with a suicide bombing that killed the country’s deputy intelligence chief and 22 other people on Sept. 2 while they were leaving a mosque in the eastern province of Laghman. The intelligence service said in a statement that all four suspects, arrested on Dec. 20, had confessed to organizing the bombing.
The bomber approached the crowd on foot and detonated an explosive belt, killing Abdullah Laghmani, who was deputy chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security and a close ally of Karzai. Arrested were Abdul Rahman, a Taliban military commander in Laghman, and three members of his insurgent network.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.