- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | The U.S.-led coalition blamed Taliban militants Saturday for causing what Afghan officials say were dozens of civilian deaths during a prolonged battle that included American air strikes. The U.S. said an unspecified number of civilians died, but it did not take responsibility for any deaths.

Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry declined to endorse the U.S. report, saying its own investigation would be completed soon.

Afghan officials have estimated that up to 147 people died in the battle in the western province of Farah on Monday, but a U.S. spokeswoman called that number exaggerated. The U.S. report did not offer an estimate of the number killed in the battle.

The preliminary report said Taliban fighters herded Afghan villagers into houses to use as human shields while they fired on coalition forces in two villages in Farah. The report said that U.S. forces had responded to a call for help from Afghan forces and that militants attacked the troops from several locations.

Troops called for air strikes on the militant positions, and a U.S. spokeswoman said Saturday that fighter aircraft made 13 passes over the two villages, using a combination of flares, strafing runs and bombs.

“The investigation suggests that villagers had taken refuge in a number of houses in each village. Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked [Afghan security forces] and coalition forces,” a statement from the U.S. coalition said.

Neither the U.S. nor Afghan forces took responsibility for killing civilians in Saturday’s statement. A second U.S. statement said villagers seeking medical treatment told Afghan doctors that militants were fighting from rooftops while forcing the villagers to remain in their compound.

“The joint investigation team strongly condemns the brutality of the Taliban extremists deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and using them as human shields,” the statement said.

Other groups expressed concern for the investigative process. Human Rights Watch on Saturday blasted the U.S. military and said the attack was likely to be “the largest and most tragic loss of life to U.S. bombs so far in Afghanistan.”

At the U.N. headquarters in Kabul, an official said that some at the world body were uneasy that the “very same people who are accused of causing the civilian casualties are being sent back to investigate.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to share such internal views.

The U.S. said the findings came from a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation. But the country’s Interior Ministry and Farah’s police chief both said that their delegations were continuing to investigate and that they did not endorse the U.S. report.

“Our teams are still in Farah collecting data. We will come out with our results soon,” said Zemeri Bashary, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

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