Sunday, August 31, 2008

From combined dispatches

KABUL, Afghanistan | The U.S.-led coalition, Afghan government and the United Nations will launch a joint probe into the deadly Aug. 22 raid in a village in the country’s west, a top NATO official said Saturday.

Afghan and U.N. officials say an estimated 90 civilians, most of them children, were killed in the village of Azizabad in the western Herat province.

The incident has caused outrage in Afghanistan, where the issue of civilian casualties has been a long-standing point of contention between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, who dispute the civilian casualty figure.

So far, neither side has produced conclusive evidence to support its claim.

Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the chief spokesman for the NATO-led force, said Saturday that the Afghan government, U.S.-led coalition and the U.N. mission here have agreed to a joint probe.

“We are hoping to have a quick unfolding of this investigation so we can … basically reconcile these numbers, which are way too far apart right now,” Gen. Blanchette told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

“It is obviously a case where all three have received different bits of information, and they need to reconcile this,” he said. “Obviously, there is somebody that does not have the right information.”

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that a Pentagon review found the number to be far lower — five civilians killed.

Pentagon officials told the AP on the condition of anonymity, because the review has not been released publicly, that a rival clan provided misleading information that prompted the attack and that 25 militants were killed during the operation.

Gen. Blanchette suggested the Taliban may have tried to manipulate information after the event to discredit the troops.

The disputed operation had been legitimate with the targeted rebel commander “responsible for many, many deaths,” the Canadian general said.

Gen. Blanchette is the spokesman for the NATO-led force, which is headed by a four-star American general, David McKiernan, and is separate from the U.S.-led coalition, whose troops were involved in the raid. It was not clear why Gen. Blanchette was releasing the information.

A U.N. spokesman confirmed to Agence France-Presse that special representative Kai Eide had spoken to Gen. McKiernan on Saturday and that “we are open to the idea of a joint investigation.”

“It is important that we all get to the bottom of what has happened,” spokesman Aleem Siddique said.

The details were still to be worked out, officials said.

Afghan government officials were not immediately available to confirm the decision.

Evidence from all sides regarding the raid has been scant, with no conclusive photos or video emerging to shed light on what happened in Azizabad.

Mr. Karzai has castigated Western military commanders over civilian deaths resulting from their raids, saying they create anger among Afghans that the Taliban and other insurgents use as leverage to turn Afghans away from the government.

The U.S. military says that civilians are never deliberately targeted and that forces go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Claims of civilian deaths can be tricky. Relatives of Afghan victims are given condolence payments by Mr. Karzai’s government and the U.S. military, which provides an incentive to make false claims.

And disputes over claims of civilian casualties are common.

Two senior Afghan police officers said Saturday that coalition forces killed five civilians in air strikes aimed at Taliban insurgents, but the force denied causing any civilian casualties.

“Five civilians, including two women and a child, were killed in an air strike by coalition forces early this morning,” Sayed Sakhidad, criminal investigation police chief for Kapisa province outside Kabul, told AFP.

Five Taliban were also killed, he said.

Kapisa’s deputy provincial police chief, Abdul Hamid Hakimi, also said “five civilians and as many rebels, including a militant commander, were killed in the strikes.”

He gave the names of the civilian dead, whom he said were from the same family and included two females and three males, one of them 17 years old.

The coalition dismissed the charges.

“There were no civilian casualties in that incident,” a spokesman said.

The coalition said in a statement earlier that “several militants” were killed in the operation in Kapisa’s Nijrab district, which started Friday.

More than 3,700 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan this year.

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