Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The way NOT to win over the natives!

Abdul Malek/Associated Press

Enraged villagers brought an estimated 30 bodies from their district to the capital of Farah Province to show officials, news agencies reported on Tuesday, quoting local officials. Villagers’ accounts put the death toll at 70 to 100, they said.

The fatalities offered a grim back-drop to talks scheduled Wednesday in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, whose office called the civilian deaths “unjustifiable and unacceptable,” Reuters reported.

Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said the organization had sent a team to the area on Tuesday to investigate the incident. The team members saw houses destroyed and dozens of dead bodies. Some had died while trying to shelter in a house.

“What our team saw was dozens of bodies, graves and people preparing burials,” she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The dead included women and children. “It’s not the first time,” Ms. Barry said, but “really this is one of the very serious and biggest incidents for a very long time.”

The bombardment could be the largest case of civilian casualties since an attack on the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan last year, in which United Nations officials said there was convincing evidence that 90 civilians were killed. The United States military only ever acknowledged that 30 civilians had died. The case led to stricter rules for calling in bombing raids on Afghan houses.

The provincial governor for Farah Province, Rohul Amin, confirmed there had been heavy fighting and aerial bombardment in Bala Baluk, a district to the north of the province where Taliban and drug smugglers are active. He said that 25 to 30 Taliban had been killed and that there had also been civilian casualties. He said he was sending a government delegation to the area to investigate.

The top United States spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, confirmed that coalition forces had participated in the battle, The Associated Press reported. Colonel Julian said that several wounded Afghans had sought medical treatment at a military base in Farah, but that officials were still investigating the reports of civilian deaths.

The Taliban had gathered in several villages named Shewan Kalai, Ganjabad, and Durani Kalai, in the Bala Baluk district, the governor said when contacted by phone. They attacked police checkpoints in the villages around midnight on Monday and the fighting steadily escalated. Three policemen were killed and three others wounded. Two police cars were set on fire and one was stolen.

An Afghan Army unit was sent to the area, but found a heavy contingent of Taliban and later called in airstrikes. The Afghan Army has American trainers embedded with them who are able to call in air support. The fighting lasted about 12 hours through the night, the governor said.

“We don’t know the exact numbers of the civilians’ casualties; it is a densely populated area where the fighting broke out,” the governor said. “The Taliban are using civilians’ houses for their own protection and as a shield,” he said.

He said he would ask tribal elders to go to the region to investigate the villagers’ claims, because the area was too full of the Taliban for government officials to go there.

Villagers told Afghan officials that they had put children, women, and elderly men in several housing compounds away from the fighting to keep them safe. But the villagers said fighter aircraft later attacked those compounds in the village of Gerani, killing a majority of those inside, The A.P. reported.

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah’s provincial council, said villagers had brought bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the province’s governor, The A.P. report said. Mr. Khan said it was difficult to count the bodies because they had been badly mutilated, but he estimated that the villagers brought around 30.

Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, the former top official in the district of Bala Baluk, said he had seen dozens of bodies when he visited the village of Gerani.

“These houses that were full of children and women and elders were bombed by planes. It is very difficult to say how many were killed because nobody can count the number, it is too early,” Mr. Qadderdan, who no longer holds a government position, told The A.P. by telephone. “People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands.”

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