Friday, August 7, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Four U.S. Marines were killed Thursday when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle in western Afghanistan, driving up Western military deaths at a pace that would make August one of the deadliest months of the war.

Civilian casualties have also been sharply rising, and a southern Afghan police chief said a U.S. air strike had killed five farmers picking their cucumber crop at night. The U.S. military said the men were insurgents, but offered conflicting accounts throughout the day of the reason an American helicopter opened fire.

At least 15 Western troops have been killed in Afghanistan in August.

Casualties among Afghans and international troops are climbing as Western forces push deeper into Taliban territory ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential elections. NATO declined to say exactly where the Marines were killed or immediately release other details of the attack.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Thursday found support for the Afghan war slipping among Americans. The poll, conducted between July 31 and Aug. 3, found 41 percent favor the war while 54 percent are opposed. The poll has a margin of error of three percentage points.

The United States and NATO have said protecting civilians is their highest priority and placed new restrictions on air strikes last month in an attempt to limit civilian casualties.

But a police chief in the southern province of Kandahar said a Western air strike Wednesday night killed five farmers loading cucumbers into a taxi. A U.S. spokeswoman initially said the men were militants who had been seen placing weapons into a van.

“We watched the guys loading small arms into a van for an hour before firing on it,” said U.S. Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a press officer for NATO forces in Afghanistan. “Our information is that they were loading munitions not cucumbers.”

The U.S. military said later in the day that the men had been seen planting roadside bombs.

When asked about the discrepancy Thursday night, U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a NATO forces spokesman, said the military wanted to fully review video taken by the helicopter that launched the air strike before providing a complete account of the incident.

Lt. Sidenstricker said soon afterward that officials had reviewed the video and decided not to release it because the nighttime footage did not definitively show what had happened.

She said officials were certain that the men were clearly acting in ways that showed they were not innocent farmers.

“We saw them running with concealed objects, moving very heavy objects around the road,”Lt. Sidenstricker said.

District police Chief Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said the five were trying to move their cucumber crop from the rural Zhari district to the city of Kandahar.

It is common for farmers to work at night in southern Afghanistan’s blazing summer temperatures. Insurgents also plant bombs and move weapons in darkness, although U.S. aircraft can monitor them using night-vision equipment.

In neighboring Helmand province, local officials said that roadside explosions had killed at least 10 people, including members of a family who hit a mine on their way to a wedding party.

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