- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KABUL (AP) - A helicopter-borne special operations mission by U.S. troops and Afghan forces early Saturday killed five people one province south of Kabul, sparking an angry protest from villagers who said the victims were civilians.

The U.S. military said the combined forces called for suspects in a house to surrender during the overnight raid, but that militants opened fire, forcing the joint forces to fire back. It said the mission targeted the leader of a roadside bomb-making cell.

However, a spokesman for the governor of Logar province said a government delegation traveled to the site and confirmed that five civilians had been killed.

Angry villagers gathered in protest near a government compound later Saturday and police opened fire on them to prevent them from storming the building, governor’s spokesman Den Mohammad Darwesh said. Two people were wounded, he said.

U.S. spokesman Col. Greg Julian denied that any civilians were killed in the mission.

“They were five armed militants that fired on a joint force … when they went in to get a targeted individual,” Julian said. “They called them out when they arrived, and these guys came out shooting and were killed in the process.”

The combined forces found grenades and other weapons during a search of the compound, a U.S. statement said.

Discerning who is and is not a civilian has long been difficult in the Afghan conflict. Militants do not wear uniforms. Many civilians own guns and will fire them when foreign troops enter their villages at night.

As well, local Afghan officials have been known to falsely claim that civilians were killed in an operation, either under pressure from militants or in hopes that villagers can claim payments from the U.S. or Afghan government. However, U.S. officials have also been slow to acknowledge when American troops have killed Afghan civilians in past instances.

Journalists and human rights monitors can rarely travel to remote battle sites to confirm information from officials.

The fact that Afghan special forces were on the raid is a significant step that helps insulate the U.S. military somewhat against charges of killing civilians. Afghan troops typically have not taken part in such operations in the past.

After angry condemnations by President Hamid Karzai over the last several months on the issue of civilian deaths, the U.S. recently agreed to put Afghan forces on all of its missions, including sensitive overnight raids conducted by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Despite that step, the Ministry of Defense spokesman said he knew nothing about the raid. Darwesh said Logar’s governor contacted U.S. officials in the province to ask for an explanation, but they responded that they did not know about it because it was conducted from the U.S. base at Bagram _ a reference to U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Darwesh said a delegation that included provincial lawmakers visited the site of the raid and reported that all five people killed were civilians _ a mullah from Kabul and four farmers. Darwesh earlier identified the dead as a father and four of his adult sons.

Close to 3,000 American soldiers arrived in Logar and the neighboring province of Wardak in January to secure the two regions on Kabul’s doorstep.

The troops were the first wave of American reinforcements this year. President Barack Obama has said he will send an additional 17,000 American forces to bolster the 38,000 already in the country. The troops will help secure violent regions in the south ahead of presidential elections later this year.

Taliban and other militants have increased attacks during the last three years and now control wide swaths of countryside that NATO troops and Afghan forces can’t protect.

In other violence, Britain’s Defense Ministry said a British soldier died in an explosion in southern Afghanistan on Saturday near Musa Qala, a region in Helmand province with many Taliban. The soldier is the 150th member of British forces to die in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the ministry said.

___

Associated Press reporter Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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