- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan elders yesterday claimed that 108 civilians were killed in a bombing campaign in western Afghanistan, while villagers in the northeast said 25 Afghans died in air strikes, including some killed while burying dead relatives.

U.S. and NATO leaders, however, said they had no information to substantiate the claims, and a U.S. official said Taliban fighters are forcing villagers to say civilians died in fighting — whether or not it is true.

Even the government officials who reported the deaths yesterday could not confirm the claims, which came from dangerous and remote regions inaccessible to journalists and other independent observers.

In the west, in Farah province, Abdul Qadir Daqeq, chief of the provincial council, said elders from the Bala Baluk district delivered a letter to his office saying that 108 civilians, including women and children, were killed in air strikes Thursday and Friday. Thirty-three militants were also reported killed. Eleven police were also found beheaded on the battlefield.

In the northeast, in Kunar province, Gov. Shelzai Dedar said villagers told him that 25 civilians had been killed during fighting that also left two NATO soldiers and two Afghan soldiers dead over the last several days. Mr. Dedar said 20 militants were killed; the Ministry of Defense said the number was 37.

Other government officials have said that some of the civilians in Wata Pur district were killed by an air strike while burying dead relatives. Dedar called that claim a rumor.

The claims and denials of civilian casualties are part of an increasing campaign of information warfare the Taliban and Western militaries have engaged in alongside conventional fighting.

“It is a very problematic information environment,” said Adrian Edwards, the U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan.

He said the reliability of government reports is crucial to addressing the very real problem of civilian casualties.

“If figures are coming up quickly, it’s my sense that they probably need to be taken with a pinch of salt,” Mr. Edwards said. “But it also doesn’t help if it’s two or three weeks before the information comes out.”

Civilian deaths are a recurring problem that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly deplored. The latest reports come at a time of increasing concern in European capitals over Afghan casualties, an issue that threatens to derail the NATO mission here.

Lt. Col. Rob Pollack, a U.S. officer at the main American base in Bagram, said Taliban militants have been told to fight in civilian areas because civilian deaths caused by U.S. or NATO forces give the fighters a propaganda victory.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the militants, said there was “no need” to use civilian homes during fighting. He denied militants were forcing villagers to inflate claims of casualties.

Independent counts of civilian deaths by the United Nations and the Associated Press both show that U.S. and NATO forces have caused more civilians deaths this year than the Taliban.

As of July 1, a U.N. tally showed that of civilian deaths this year, 314 were caused by international or Afghan security forces, and 279 by insurgents. A similar AP count, though lower, shows the same trend: 213 killed by U.S. or NATO forces and 180 by the Taliban.

More than 3,100 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an AP count based on Western and Afghan officials.