- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Up to 80 Taliban rebels and at least 16 civilians were killed yesterday during a coalition air and ground attack on a village in southern Afghanistan, officials and witnesses said.

The U.S.-led coalition said it called in warplanes after troops who were trying to capture insurgents in Kandahar province came under fire, while a governor said some of the militants had hidden in locals’ houses.

Bloodied men, women and children who streamed into a nearby hospital using vehicles that withstood the bombing said dozens of civilians died and scores more were wounded.

The air strike came amid some of the worst violence since the 2001 fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. About 300 people have been killed in the past week, about twice the number reported killed in Iraq.

“Coalition forces conducted a significant operation early this morning in the Kandahar region near the village of Azizi that resulted in the unconfirmed deaths of possibly up to 80 Taliban members,” according to a coalition statement.

“The purpose of this morning’s operation was to detain individuals suspected of terrorist and anti-Afghanistan activities. However, during the operation, coalition forces encountered organized armed opposition.

“Ground and close air support assets engaged the extremists, who were firing on coalition troops and endangering innocent civilians.”

The coalition said it was investigating reports of civilian deaths. Its troops “only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists,” according to the statement.

Kandahar provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid told reporters that at least 16 civilians were killed and 15 were wounded in the attack.

“There were reports that the Taliban were in this village, but when the US planes started bombardment, the Taliban used the people’s houses as a front. That’s why there were civilian casualties,” Mr. Khalid said at the main hospital in Kandahar city, 20 miles east of the bombed area.

An 18-year-old with wounds to his face and chest said there had been Taliban members in the village, but they disappeared when the bombs started to fall.

“One hit my house. I was wounded, and my two brothers were killed,” said the teenager, who gave only his first name, Azizullah. He also said he had seen scores of dead and wounded on his way to the hospital.

There have been several major battles with insurgents during the past week, including a clash in Panjwayi on Wednesday and Thursday, which Mr. Khalid said left 100 Taliban members dead. Insurgents also carried out three suicide bombings.

Separately, Afghan and coalition forces said Monday that they had arrested a midlevel Taliban leader who was a rebel commander for Helmand province, during an operation Friday in neighboring Uruzgan province.

Mullah Mohibullah was responsible for a Taliban ambush on Friday that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded several others, it said.

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