16 die in strike against Afghan warlord

April 7, 2008 9:16:33 AM PDT
U.S. and Afghan forces attacked a remote village in a mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan following reports that an infamous insurgent leader was in the area, a governor said Monday. At least 16 people were killed. Gov. Tamim Nuristani said U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces believed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was meeting with top deputy Kashmir Khan in the Dohabi district of Nuristan province on Sunday, sparking a fierce bombardment that included airstrikes.

Other provincial leaders say many civilians were killed in the hours-long clash, which included airstrikes in the remote villages of Shok and Kendal. Nuristani said it was too early to know if any of the 16 killed were civilians. His casualty figures came from police who had reached the remote district.

U.S. officials and the Afghan Defense Ministry have denied that any civilians were killed.

The competing claims were impossible to reconcile because the fighting took part in a remote and dangerous part of the country. U.S. officials say that militants falsely claim civilian casualties as a strategy to weaken the international military coalition and the Afghan government.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said the strike targeted a terrorist center that included a suicide bomb cell. It said it would release casualty figures later.

Hekmatyar heads the militant group Hezb-i-Islami, which has links with the Taliban and al-Qaida in fighting the Afghan government, though Hekmatyar has denied direct links with those groups.

He briefly served as prime minister of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is infamous for bombarding the capital, Kabul, during the country's civil war, killing an untold number of civilians.

The chief of Nuristan's provincial council, Rahmatullah Rashid, said 19 people were killed in the battle - all civilians. He said six children, five women and eight men were killed in the attack. He said he didn't have a report of how many militants were killed. Rashid's information was relayed to him by villagers via radio communications.

U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Richard Ulsh said "Coalition Forces have received no reports of civilian casualties at this time as a result of that conflict."

Mohammad Farooq, the province's criminal investigations director, said 20 people were killed, including civilians. He said that some two dozen houses were destroyed.


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