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Rights Group: US Must Prevent Civilian Casualties

Peter Graff

Afghan villagers stand near the graves of air-strike victims in Garni village on May 8, 2009. The latest "outrage" of massive civilian casualties in US air strikes needs to be the last if the United States wants to have credibility in Afghanistan, campaign group Human Rights Watch said Friday. (AFP/File)

KABUL - U.S. forces in Afghanistan should have known there were large numbers of civilians in a village they bombed this month, and need to change their procedures to prevent civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

The Afghan government says 140 civilians were killed in the U.S. bombing of Bala Boluk district in Farah province on May 3, an incident that has stoked anti-American anger across Afghanistan.

According to a type-written list of 140 victims' names, ages and father's names endorsed by Afghan government investigators and obtained this week by Reuters, 93 of the dead were children and only 22 were adult males.

If confirmed, the death toll would make it the deadliest incident for civilians of the seven-year war.

U.S. officials acknowledge civilians died but dispute the death toll. They say some of the names on the list may be fake and blame Taliban fighters for putting the villagers in harm's way.

The dispute has stoked outrage against Western forces in Afghanistan and prompted President Hamid Karzai to demand an end to all air strikes, a call that Washington has rebuffed.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said a review promised by General David Petraeus into the use of air strikes in Afghanistan needed to produce "fundamental changes" to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.

"The U.S., working with its Afghan counterparts, should have known that there was a large civilian population in the village at the time of the air strikes," the group's Asia director, Brad Adams, said in a statement.

"The U.S. needs to answer some basic questions about the sources and quality of information it requires before authorizing these kinds of devastating bombing runs."

Washington has taken steps to reduce civilian casualties since another major incident last year in which the Afghan government and the United Nations say up to 90 civilians died.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, issued a directive in September calling for his forces to attempt to disengage rather than fire if they come into contact with insurgents in an area where there may be civilians.

The United Nations says McKiernan's directive does seem to have helped reduce civilian deaths in recent months. But Human Rights Watch said: "the tragedy of Bala Boluk shows that further reform is required."

"Even if some Taliban remained in the village, dropping a dozen bombs into a residential area doesn't seem to make much sense," said Adams. "The U.S. should do everything possible to ensure that disasters like Bala Boluk are not repeated.

"Afghans are reeling from so much loss, and the anger it arouses clearly fuels the insurgency."

Since the incident, Washington has announced that McKiernan will be removed from his command. However, officials say the decision to remove him was taken before the incident took place.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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