Karzai orders inquiry into bombing by U.S.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – President Hamid Karzai ordered an inquiry Tuesday into a U.S. bombing that killed at least 16 civilians, including some at a religious school, and called for a meeting with the commander of American forces in Afghanistan.

It was the second time in five weeks that Karzai has complained about civilian deaths from airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

U.S. warplanes targeted the southern village overnight Sunday because Taliban fighters were hiding there, and dozens of the militants were killed. It was one of the deadliest U.S. attacks since the American-led invasion in 2001.

Karzai expressed “concern at the coalition forces’ decision to bomb civilian areas” in the village of Azizi in Kandahar province, but he also strongly condemned the “terrorists’ act of cowardice” in using civilians as human shields.

Local officials said 17 civilians died in the bombings of an Islamic school and mud-brick homes, and the U.S.-led coalition said at least 20 – and perhaps as many as 80 – militants were killed.

Just last month, Karzai complained about coalition attacks that killed seven civilians in eastern Kunar province. Karzai ordered an investigation and demanded the coalition use restraint.

In September, the Afghan president challenged the need for major foreign military operations, saying airstrikes no longer were effective. But that statement came before a resurgence of militant activity this spring with snow melting on the high mountain passes used by fighters.

Militant supporters of the former Taliban regime have stepped up attacks this year, triggering a tough response from coalition and Afghan forces. The coalition airstrike on Azizi was the third clash there in a week.

Up to 27 militants were killed in a ground battle and airstrike in the same area Thursday.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Tamara Lawrence, said she could not comment on whether the military would change its tactics after the Azizi bombing.

An official with the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the attack was “completely predictable and avoidable,” and he accused the Taliban of purposely endangering civilians.

“In southern Afghanistan, civilians are caught in the crossfire, and we expect it’s going to be a long and bloody summer,” said Sam Zarifi, head of the group’s Asia division. “Taliban insurgent forces who take shelter in a civilian area knowing that it’s going to draw hostile fire are violating international law.

“There is some evidence that was happening in this case.”

Zarifi also said the coalition should change its tactics to avoid civilian casualties. “This sometimes means not launching attacks in certain civilian-heavy areas, and using the right weapons,” he said.

In 2004, the U.S. military said it had modified its rules of engagement after Karzai expressed outrage over the deaths of 15 children in two airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan. But officials refused to say how the rules had been changed, saying that would only help militants.

The worst such incident came in July 2002, when Afghan officials said 48 civilians were killed and 117 wounded in an airstrike in Uruzgan province. The dead included 25 members of an extended family attending a wedding celebration.

Karzai is on an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, and the statement from his office said that on his return to Kabul he would summon the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan – Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry – for a “full explanation.”

Lawrence said Karzai and Eikenberry talk frequently, and “we will provide any information that the president requests on coalition operations.”

“We would also stress that the government of Afghanistan shares our concern that enemy fighters are knowingly putting noncombatants’ lives at risk, and together we will continue to take all measures to prevent injury to innocent civilians,” she said.

In Azizi, villagers buried their dead. U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthog warplanes had bombed the religious school, or madrassa, where the militants were suspected of hiding, before hitting surrounding homes as the insurgents took shelter there.

One villager, Haji Ikhlaf, told The Associated Press that 26 civilians had been buried by early Tuesday – higher than the toll given by officials. Karzai’s office said 16 civilians died, though a local doctor told the AP a 17th died of his injuries.

“We’ve buried women. We’ve buried children,” Ikhlaf, 40, said by cell phone from the area, which has been closed off to reporters by local security forces. “They are killing us. We are so angry.”

Villagers also dug graves for Taliban rebels, he said.

Eikenberry told the AP on Monday that the military was “looking into” reports of civilian deaths. Other coalition officials said they were confident the airstrike had hit a Taliban compound.

The coalition said 20 Taliban were confirmed killed in the airstrike on Azizi and up to 60 more militants may have died.

Human Rights Watch’s Zarifi said the results of past investigations into similar airstrikes “have not been very satisfactory.”

“Karzai’s actions are a response to public opinion, which is increasingly resentful of the American presence,” he said.

Newly reported fighting, meanwhile, killed 19 more people, including three police officers and 12 militants who died in a firefight and three health care workers killed by a roadside bomb. The deaths pushed the toll in a week of violence to 305, most of them militants, according to Afghan and coalition figures.

Those figures are difficult to confirm independently because many of the villages are closed off by authorities or are in remote areas.

The deadliest fighting in four years comes ahead of preparations for the U.S.-led coalition to hand over security operations in southern Afghanistan to NATO by July.

Militants ambushed a police patrol in the southern province of Helmand, the heartland of the heroin trade. Dozens of Taliban fled after Monday’s attack, leaving behind the bodies of 12 fighters, provincial administrator Ghulam Muhiddin.

The medical workers were killed Monday about 25 miles west of Kabul on a road often frequented by foreigners, said Bashar Gul, a deputy police chief. The blast killed a doctor, two nurses and their driver – all workers for the local Afghan Health Development Services, he said.

Militants repeatedly have targeted aid workers. Last month, gunmen stormed a medical clinic in a northwestern province and killed five doctors and nurses.

The Taliban opposes the presence of the workers because they believe they bolster Karzai’s U.S.-backed government.

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