U.S. Airstrike Reported to Hit Afghan Wedding

Afghan men examined a house that was allegedly destroyed by a U.S. airstrike Tuesday.
Humayoun Shiab/European Pressphoto Agency

KABUL, Afghanistan – An airstrike by United States-led forces killed 40 civilians and wounded 28 others at a wedding party in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Wednesday. The casualties included women and children, the officials said.

The New York Times

The United States military and Afghan authorities were investigating the reports about the latest attack, the American military said in a statement, but it gave no confirmation of the strikes or any death toll.

The reports of the strike, in a region that has become a renewed front line in the battle against the Taliban, showed the raw tensions between the United States and Afghanistan over the toll suffered by civilians in the war, and came just hours after the election of Barack Obama as the next American president.

The reports recall an assault in August in western Afghanistan that was initially disputed by the United States, in which an American gunship killed at least 30 civilians. On Wednesday, at a news conference called to congratulate Mr. Obama, President Hamid Karzai said his first request to Mr. Obama would be “to end the civilian casualties.”

The American military statement said an investigation was under way in the village of Wech Baghtu. “If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences to the families and the people of Afghanistan,” said the statement, issued by Cmdr. Jeff Bender, deputy public affairs officer of United States forces in Afghanistan. But it also said that the facts were “unclear at this point.”

Zalmay Ayoby, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar, said the strike took place on Monday afternoon, when Taliban and American-led forces engaged in a firefight near the village, which is in Sha Wali Kot district. An airstrike was later called in and hit a compound where a wedding party was being held, he said.

“Unfortunately we should say that an airstrike on a wedding party had killed and injured a huge number of people in Sha Wali Kot,” he said.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, brother of the Afghan president and leader of the provincial council in Kandahar, said that there were civilian casualties, but that it was unclear how many people had died.

He said he had spoken with some people who had been wounded in the attack and had been admitted to Kandahar’s main hospital. They told him that as many as 32 civilians were admitted, including women and children from the wedding party, he said.

Dr. Qudratullah Hakimi, a doctor at the Merwais Hospital in Kandahar, who was reached by telephone, said the hospital had admitted 22 women and six children after the attack. The children were from 1 to 11 years old, he said. He said the bride from the wedding party had undergone an operation but was stable.

“Five out of 28 are in serious condition and the others are stable,” he said. His patients reported that up to 90 people were killed or wounded in the attack, and that some were buried under the rubble, although this could not be independently confirmed.

Later, President Karzai condemned the attack in a statement and said that around 40 people had been killed and another 28 wounded.

Afghan anger over airstrikes and civilian casualties has been rising, adding to tensions with the United States over international operations to fight resurgent Taliban insurgents.

In the case, that the United States initially disputed, an American AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected Taliban compound on Aug. 22. Villagers and Afghan officials said that more than 90 civilians were killed, a majority of them women and children, and a United Nations human rights team who visited the area said it found “convincing evidence” that 90 civilians – among them 60 children – that number.

But the American military initially said that only five to seven civilians had been killed. Persistent accounts of a higher toll, and news reports bolstering the claims, prompted another military investigation, which concluded that more than 30 civilians had been killed.

At his news conference Wednesday, President Karzai referred to civilian casualties in the attack on Sha Wali Kot. “The fight against terrorism cannot be won by bombardment of our villages,” Mr. Karzai said. “My first demand from the new president of the United States when he takes his office will be to end the civilian casualties and take the fight to where the nests and sanctuaries are,” he said.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, an advocacy group for civilians in combat zones, called for Mr. Obama to appoint a senior Pentagon official to oversee policies to help avoid civilian casualties.

Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the group, which is based in Washington, said Wednesday that she has been discussing the idea with advisers to Mr. Obama over the past six months.

While the American military has tried in recent years to avoid civilian casualties in planned strikes, most civilian deaths in Afghanistan have come when American troops have called in air or artillery strikes when they have come under fire.

The State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “Our military takes the greatest possible care to make sure that innocent lives aren’t lost in the course of military operations. They’re very, very careful. That isn’t to say on occasion it doesn’t happen. And when it does happen, these incidences are thoroughly investigated and we try to learn from those incidences so they’re not repeated in the future.”

Abdul Waheed Wafa reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mark McDonald from New York. Graham Bowley contributed reporting from New York and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

Published: November 5, 2008

Source: The New York Times

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