Air strikes in the British-controlled Helmand province of Afghanistan may have killed civilians, coalition troops said yesterday as local people claimed that between 50 and 80 people, many of them women and children, had died.
In the latest of a series of attacks causing significant civilian casualties in recent weeks, more than 200 were killed by coalition troops in Afghanistan in June, far more than are believed to have been killed by Taliban militants.
The bombardment, which witnesses said lasted up to three hours, in the Gereshk district late on Friday followed an attempted ambush by the Taliban on a joint US-Afghan military convoy. According to Mohammad Hussein, the provincial police chief, the militants fled into a nearby village for cover. Planes then targeted the village of Hyderabad. Mohammad Khan, a resident of the village, said seven members of his family, including his brother and five of his brother's children, were killed.
'I brought three of my wounded relatives to Gereshk hospital for treatment,' he told the Associated Press news agency by phone. The villagers were yesterday burying a 'lot of dead bodies', Khan said.
He spoke as American forces in Iraq also found themselves heavily criticized over civilian deaths when eight people died, apparently caught in crossfire from a gunfight between insurgents and soldiers in Baghdad's Sadr City yesterday. But residents, police and hospital officials said eight civilians were killed in their homes and angrily accused US forces of firing blindly on innocent people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the raids and demanded an explanation for the assault on a district where he has barred American operations in the past.
In Afghanistan, the civilian deaths caused by US and NATO-led troops have infuriated local people and prompted President Hamid Karzai to publicly condemn foreign forces for careless 'use of extreme force' and for viewing Afghan lives as 'cheap'. The increasingly fragile President has urged restraint and better co-ordination of military operations with the Afghan government, while also blaming the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.
Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, raised the issue of civilian casualties on a four-hour visit to Afghanistan on Friday on which he met the senior NATO commander there, the American General Dan McNeill.
Senior British soldiers have previously expressed concerns that McNeill, who took command of the 32,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan only recently, was 'a fan' of the massive use of air power to defeat insurgents and that his favored tactics could be counter-productive.
'Every civilian dead means five new Taliban,' said one British officer who has recently returned from Helmand. 'It's a tough call when the enemy are hiding in villages, but you have to be very, very careful,' he added.
The American general has been dubbed 'Bomber McNeill' by his critics.
But NATO has 'never killed and will never intentionally kill innocent civilians', its secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told a conference in Macedonia on Friday. 'The majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by Taliban suicide bombs and roadside bombs.'
US Air Force Major John Thomas said that, after a long skirmish and under constant fire from the Taliban, troops of Isaf (the International Security Assistance Force), called for close air force support during an operation in Helmand, where the Taliban have been resurgent this year.
'All enemy positions were destroyed, but after friendly forces surveyed the area, there were reports of some possible civilian deaths,' Thomas said.
'The remains of some people who appeared to be civilians were found among enemy fighters in a trench line,' he added. The level of violence has soared in Afghanistan, with more than 2,800 people - mostly Taliban fighters - killed in fighting this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures issued in the last few days by Western military and Afghan officials.
A count by the United Nations and an umbrella organisation of Afghan and international aid groups shows the number of civilians killed by international forces was slightly greater than the number killed by insurgents in the first half of the year.
In Helmand's Sangin district, Nato-led and Afghan troops clashed with Taliban fighters on Friday, leaving 15 of the militants dead, said Ezatullah Khan, a district chief. Helmand is the primary area of operations for the British troops deployed in Afghanistan.
There were no casualties among NATO and Afghan troops, the official said.
More than 3,000 British troops have been deployed in Helmand to combat both the Taliban and the drugs trade. Also in the south, two suspected Taliban members were killed while trying to place a homemade bomb on the side of a road in Zhari district of Kandahar province on Friday, said Ghulam Rasool, the district's police chief.
Three children were also killed on Friday and another wounded when an old rocket they were playing with exploded in Zabul province in the south, said General Yaqoub Khan, the provincial police chief.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007