US general visits Afghan bomb site

February 18, 2009 9:43:04 AM PST
A U.S. general traveled to western Afghanistan on Wednesday to investigate claims that six women and two children were killed in a U.S. airstrike, officials said. Photographs of the site showed at least one dead boy, bloodied and dirty from the attack. The Afghan Ministry of Defense condemned the killings of civilians and said they occurred despite a recent U.S.-Afghan agreement to increase participation of Afghan forces in U.S. missions, a step aimed at preventing civilian casualties.

The U.S. coalition said in a statement that a strike Monday in the Gozara district of Herat province killed 15 militants and targeted a leader named Ghulam Yahya Akbari.

But Ekremuddin Yawar, a police commander for western Afghanistan, said six women and two children were among the dead, along with five men. He said the group was living in tents in the remote Afghan countryside.

Photographs obtained by The Associated Press from the site show the body of a young boy - bloodied and dirtied - laying on a white shroud. Afghan men can be seen digging about a dozen fresh graves. Dead sheep and destroyed tents can also be seen.

Civilian deaths have been a huge source of friction between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai, who has increased demands that American troops avoid killing civilians.

In response to Yawar's allegation, U.S. Brig. Gen. Michael Ryan traveled to Gozara district on Wednesday to meet with officials "to see what the situation is," said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

For now, the U.S. is standing behind its information that 15 militants were killed, she said.

The Ministry of Defense said seven militants were killed in the attack, including three people it named as associates of Yahya Akbari. Neither it nor the U.S. said Yahya Akbari was killed.

The ministry said the militants had hidden in civilian houses, causing an unspecified number of civilian deaths. However, the photographs showed no homes - only tents - and it wasn't clear what the ministry was referring to.

An ethnic group of Afghans known as Kuchis travel the countryside with livestock and live in tents.

After increasingly angry demands by Karzai for more U.S.-Afghan military cooperation, the American and Afghan militaries this month announced plans to increase the number of Afghans who will take part in U.S. operations.

Despite condemning the civilian deaths, the ministry noted it would take more time to implement the agreement. But it urged U.S. forces to "be very careful during their operations."

The investigative team's trip to Herat comes one day after the U.N. released a report saying that a record 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan war last year, a 40 percent increase over 2007.

The report said U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39 percent of the total. Of those, 552 deaths were blamed on airstrikes.

Karzai over the weekend said he hoped the new agreement would also put an end to night raids - targeted missions by U.S. Special Operations Forces that seek to capture or kill high-ranking militant leaders.

Such operations often kill innocent Afghans as well, either in airstrikes or in gun fights after villagers try to defend their homes against unknown invaders.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced plans to deploy an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster the 33,000 American forces already in the country. That plan increases the chances that more civilians could be killed in 2009 than 2008.

U.S. commanders have requested more troops to battle an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency. Militant attacks have spiked in the last three years and insurgents now control wide swaths of territory. Obama has promised to increase the U.S. focus on Afghanistan as the military draws down troops in Iraq.

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