- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | The U.S. coalition in Afghanistan opened a joint investigation Saturday into an overnight raid that U.S. commanders say killed 15 armed militants but which two Afghan officials say killed 11 civilians.

The accusation of civilian deaths is the latest in a string of incidents over the past year that have raised the ire of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pleaded with foreign military forces to avoid such killings.

A detailed U.S. statement said multiple teams of militants fired on coalition forces early Saturday during a raid against a Taliban commander in the eastern province of Laghman. U.S. officials said a woman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade was among the 15 killed.

“We know the people who were killed were shooting at us,” said Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan. “The people who were killed today were running around, maneuvering against our forces, and we killed them.”

However, Sayed Ahmad Safi, the spokesman for Laghman’s governor, said government intelligence reports indicated that 11 of the dead were civilians, including three children and two females. Two of the dead were militants, he said.

Mr. Safi said a government delegation had traveled to the site of the operation, but it was a rough three-hour trip from the provincial capital and the team wasn’t expected to report back until Sunday.

Abdul Khaliq Hussaini, a member of parliament who represents Laghman, said he thought 16 people had been killed, including 11 civilians. The site of the raid — the village of Guloch — lies 40 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul.

Col. Julian said he had no doubts about the U.S. version of the battle, but he said a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation had been initiated to put the reports of civilian deaths to rest.

“These allegations benefit the insurgency, and we want to clear them up,” he said.

Civilian deaths are a sensitive topic among the Afghan government, the U.S. and NATO.

The issue also sparks strong emotions among average Afghans and threatens to turn civilians against the international military mission.

“I’m ready to start jihad against the Americans,” an unidentified Afghan man told a Kabul TV station during a protest Saturday in the capital of Laghman.

Earlier Saturday, Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council in Laghman, said village elders arrived at his office hours after the early morning operation to complain that the 15 killed were innocent civilians.

During a call from an Associated Press reporter, Mr. Rahmzai relayed questions to the village elders directly, who angrily shouted that they would swear on the Koran, the Muslim holy book, that all those killed were civilians. The elders claimed that women and children were among the dead.

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