U.S. Account of Afghan Deaths at Odds With Head of Rights Group

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the New York Times

U.S. Account of Afghan Deaths at Odds With Head of Rights Group

by
Barry Bearak and Abdul Waheed Wafa

KABUL, Afghanistan - Four civilians were killed early Friday by American and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan, according to the leader of a small human rights group who gave an account of the deaths entirely at odds with that of the United States-led coalition.

0630 03"The soldiers claimed they were looking for three Taliban suspects, and they blew out the door of the house that belongs to Haji Muhammada Jan, who was about 80 years old, killing him and two of his sons and a grandson," said Lal Gul, chairman of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization and a resident of the area in Nangarhar Province where the killings took place. "There were no Taliban here."

The American-led coalition offered a markedly different version, saying its forces had been fired upon after "credible intelligence" led them to three separate compounds suspected of harboring Taliban fighters. It said that three militants were killed in the ensuing combat. A search of the compounds yielded rocket-propelled grenade launchers and grenades, Maj. Christopher Belcher said. Sixteen militants were taken prisoner, the coalition said.

Such competing versions of reality have become an almost daily part of the war in Afghanistan, where the nation's president and many of its people vehemently complain that American and NATO military forces are causing needless civilian casualties.

On Friday, the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, addressed the matter in remarks made in Macedonia, promising, "We will do our utmost to reduce the loss of civilian life." He continued, "Let me make one point unmistakably: NATO has never and will never intentionally kill innocent civilians."

But the issue is not one of intent. Last week, President Hamid Karzai rebuked the United States military and NATO for "careless operations." He spoke after a week in which more than 100 civilian deaths were reported from airstrikes and artillery fire against the Taliban. Among his specific criticisms were what he called "the disproportionate use of force to a situation and the lack of coordination with the Afghan government."

If Mr. Gul, the human rights advocate, is correct, the events in Nangarhar on Friday may have been a result of another in a series of tragic mistakes. "The people who were taken away are not members of the Taliban," he said in a telephone interview. "They are mostly farmers. The version being given by the coalition is baseless and a lie."

Two weeks ago, seven Afghan policemen were killed by Americans in the same region when the two forces mistook each other for insurgents.

Also on Friday, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, visited Afghanistan for the first time in his present job, meeting with Mr. Karzai and the commander of NATO forces here, The Associated Press reported.

A spokesman for the United Nations, Adrian Edwards, said the visit was aimed at "ensuring solid coordination between the U.N. and Afghan government in their joint efforts here," The A.P. reported.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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