- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. military of not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties during battles in Afghanistan and called Friday for changes to prevent civilian deaths like those earlier this month.

The New York-based group said its preliminary investigation into a May 4-5 clash that killed scores of people, including many women and children, found that measures put in place by the U.S. military to safeguard civilians were inadequate.

Afghans blame U.S. air strikes for the deaths and destruction in two villages in western Farah province. American officials say the Taliban held villagers hostage during the fight.

A joint Afghan-U.S. probe is ongoing, and evidence will show that the Taliban, not a U.S. air strike, was to blame, the top U.S. Marine officer said Friday in Washington.

“We believe that there were families who were killed by the Taliban with grenades and rifle fire that were then paraded about and shown as casualties from the air strike,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway. “Casualty after casualty has said that, in the hospitals, in terms of what they saw and what really took place.”

It is not clear exactly how many people died in the fighting in Bala Baluk district. The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead. The U.S. military has said that figure is exaggerated, but has not given its own estimate.

If the Afghan toll is correct, it would be the largest case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.

Villagers told the watchdog group that the fighting broke out after Taliban arrived demanding a share of their poppy income, but it was during the bombings that most of the civilians were killed. It was not clear whether the poppy dispute sparked the fighting, Human Rights Watch researcher Rachel Reid said.

The group reiterated its condemnation for Taliban practices of using civilians as human shields and deploying Taliban fighters in populated areas, but said its interviews did not suggest residents were used as human shields in Bala Baluk.

“The villagers that we spoke to did not say that they had been forced to stay in their homes,” Ms. Reid said.

Villagers also told researchers that the firefight between Taliban and Afghan and U.S. forces had ended before the evening bombing began, though some did say Taliban fighters were still in the compounds. The U.S. has said militants were still firing in the villages when it dropped bombs on the site in the evening.

The Washington Times, quoting some victim families, reported Friday that the Taliban had fled long before the U.S. attack.

“The U.S. needs to answer some basic questions about the sources and quality of information it requires before authorizing these kinds of devastating bombing runs,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

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