NATO Strikes Claim Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

This year, a record 270 civilians — including women and children — were killed by NATO in airstrikes and gun attacks during first six months of 2007. That's nearly 70 more civilians than the Taliban killed during the same period, according to the Afghanistan's human rights commission.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

NATO slogan in Afghanistan is help and cooperation. But to many Afghans, Western troops have become little more than killers. In the war against the Taliban, NATO and U.S. forces have caused the deaths of scores of civilians. By some counts, they've killed more civilians this year than insurgents. While the deaths are unintentional, they're costing Western soldiers what they need the most - the support of the very people they're fighting for.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Haidarabad is like many other villages scattered across the arid terrain of southern Afghanistan. Mud homes clustered around bits of farmland on which poor villagers grow opium poppies to boost their income. It's from these villages that uninvited insurgents launch attacks against Western soldiers on patrol. The troops in turn call in air strikes.

That's what happened last weekend in Haidarabad. U.S.-led troops came under fire and called for help, by the time the bombing ended, scores of Taliban fighters were dead, so were innocent villagers, including women and children. Residents say they are still digging the dead out from under the ruble.

Unidentified Man #1 (Resident, Haidarabad, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: This angry resident shouts the question on everyone's mind - why us? He gets no answer from a visiting government delegation from Kabul that's investigating the incident.

Unidentified Man #2 (Resident, Haidarabad, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Another villager at the meeting presses harder. He reminds the delegates that Haidarabad is one of the few places in Helmand province under government control. The Taliban is not welcome here, so why did NATO attacked? There are no answers to satisfy the villagers or their leaders. We reached District Mayor Saed(ph) Dur Ali Shah by phone.

Mayor DUR ALI SHAH (Haidarabad, Afghanistan): (Through translator) If it keeps going like this, the afghan government will end up with nothing but enemies in this country.

NELSON: It's a point not lost on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Recently, he's taken the unusual step of openly criticizing Western troops. He's also ordered a formal investigation into the bombing. NATO in turn has repeatedly expressed regret over such killings. It pledges to work harder to prevent civilian deaths. Lieutenant Colonel Maria Carl is a spokeswoman for NATO forces here.

Lieutenant Colonel MARIA CARL (Spokeswoman, NATO forces in Afghanistan): The Taliban extremists are deliberately targeting civilians in many cases and we certainly do not do that. In fact, if there are civilian casualties, regrettably, it is always accidental. It's always unintentional.

NELSON: She adds that Taliban fighters are increasingly using civilians as human shields when engaging Western and Afghan troops. That's what appears to have happened in Haidarabad. Such Taliban tactics are costing more lives now than at any time since their defeat in 2001. More than 500 civilians died in the first six months of this year alone. It's a statistic some here quietly admit Afghans will put up with for the time being. Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Mr. NADER NADERY (Commissioner, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission): The people of Afghanistan do understand after coming out of 30 years of conflict and civil war, and they know that this is their last shot. This is their last chance and people understand if today the international forces leave the country, the next day there will be another civil war, and a very good a haven for the terrorists and the Taliban.

NELSON: But Nadery adds Western troops nevertheless share the blame with the Taliban for the mounting death toll. Such as near Jalalabad last March when U.S. Marines fired at passersby who approached after their convoy was attacked. Other critics say Western forces do not do enough after they kill civilians either. Sarah Holewinski who heads Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

Ms. SARAH HOLEWINSKI (Executive Director, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict): The simplest thing that NATO could do to show them that they are on a morally high ground from the Taliban and to show the Afghan people that they care is to go in after incidents like we've seen over the past couple of days and weeks, where civilians have been killed and help were they have harmed, and that means compensation. It means aid and we haven't seen that coming yet.

NELSON: Back in Helmand province, District Mayor Dur Ali Shah says Karzai's government plans to pay families of Haidarabad victims the equivalent of $4,000 for each person killed. He adds the second Afghan delegation is expected to meet with villagers in the coming days. The villagers interviewed for this story said they've heard nothing from Western troops since the night of the bombing.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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