IHT : U.S. airstrike did kill 90 civilians, UN finds

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

U.S. airstrike did kill 90 civilians, UN finds

By Carlotta Gall | August 27, 2008

KABUL: A UN human rights team in Afghanistan has found "convincing evidence" that 90 civilians - among them 60 children - were killed in airstrikes on a village in the western province of Herat on Friday, the United Nations mission in Kabul said.

If the assertion proved correct, the attack would have killed more civilians than any U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since 2001.

The UN statement added pressure on the U.S. military, which has maintained that only 25 militants and 5 civilians were killed in the airstrikes. It ordered an investigation into the strike after Afghan officials reported the higher civilian death toll.

The UN team visited the scene and interviewed survivors and local officials and elders, getting a name, age and gender of each person reported killed. The team reported that 15 people had been wounded in the airstrikes.

The numbers closely matched those given by a government commission sent from Kabul to investigate the bombing, which put the total dead at up to 95.

Mohammad Iqbal Safi, head of the parliamentary defense committee and a member of the government commission, said the 60 children were aged from 3 months to 16 years old and that they were killed as they slept. "It was a heartbreaking scene," he said.

The death toll may increase. Heavy lifting equipment has been called in to uncover all the remains, said a Western official who had seen the UN report.

"This is a matter of grave concern to the United Nations," Kai Eide, the UN special representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement. "It is vital that the international and Afghan military forces thoroughly review the conduct of this operation in order to prevent a repeat of this tragic incident."

The bombing occurred around midnight, the UN statement said.

"Foreign and Afghan military personnel entered the village of Nawabad in the Azizabad area of Shindand District," it said. "Military operations lasted several hours during which airstrikes were called in.

"The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident," with seven or eight houses "having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others."

Safi, the member of Parliament, said the villagers had been preparing for a ceremony the next morning in memory of a man who died some time before. Extended families from two tribes were visiting the village and there were lights of fires as the adults were cooking food for the ceremony, he said.

How the military came to call in airstrikes on a civilian gathering is unclear. Two members of Parliament, Safi and Maulavi Gul Ahmad, who is from the area, said the villagers blamed tribal enemies for giving the military false intelligence on foreign fighters gathering in the village.

Ahmad blamed the U.S. Special Forces, who are training the Afghan Army and were present in the joint operation. "I can't blame the Afghan National Army for the incident, as they had no authority for leading the operation," he said.

The government commission met with the commander of U.S. forces in Herat Province, but he declined to answer their questions, saying the U.S. military was conducting its own investigation, Afghan government officials said.

The Defense Department said it would not have a separate statement on the bombing beyond the one issued by U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. That statement said in part that the operation killed 25 militants, including a Taliban commander, Mullah Sadiq, and five "noncombatants."

Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting.