ASHOGHO, Afghanistan (AP) – A narrow lane through the village was littered with rubble from the airstrikes: giant pieces of dried mud, packed with straw. A hole was blasted through one house. Another had only one wall standing, and looked ready to topple over.

Six-year-old Bibi Farida, her red hair matted with dirt, fidgeted and put her dirty scarf in her mouth as she recalled the nighttime assault. Her voice was barely a whisper. “I cried. I just cried.”

The assault by NATO helicopters hunting Taliban fighters ripped through three dried mud homes in this dirt-poor southern village early Wednesday as people slept. At least nine civilians were killed, including women and children, according to residents and the provincial governor.

Shellshocked, angry villagers in Ashogho condemned the attack, which set back NATO’s hopes of winning local support for their tough counterinsurgency campaign. The 2 a.m. airstrikes came at about the same time a rocket struck a house in a village to the west, reportedly killing 13 people.

“I am not Taliban! We are not Taliban!” Gulab Shah shouted by the rubble of the ruined houses in Ashogho.

Kandahar provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid said it appeared that no Taliban fighters were in the village at the time of the airstrikes. The raid in the Zhari district of Kandahar province was only half a mile from the scene of September’s Operation Medusa, one of the most ferocious battles between Western forces and insurgents since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that Wednesday’s operation was believed to have caused several civilian casualties. The alliance said the operation was meant to detain people involved in roadside bomb attacks in Panjwayi district, which borders Zhari.

NATO said it regretted any civilian casualties and that it makes every effort to minimize the risk of collateral damage.

Khalid, who traveled Wednesday to Ashogho, about 15 miles west of Kandahar city, said nine people were killed, including women and children, and 11 wounded.

Residents said 13 were killed, including four women, and 15 wounded. The governor stuck with his figures when contacted late Wednesday by The Associated Press.

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly demanded that NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces take more care when conducting military operations in residential areas to avoid civilian casualties, which undermine his government’s already weak standing in parts of the country.

Khalid said Karzai expressed his sympathy after he called the president on his cell phone from the village. “He told them how he hurt for them and how sad he was for their loss,” Khalid said.

Shah, whose dirty green baggy pants were hiked up past his ankles, the sign of a deeply conservative man, gestured toward the destroyed homes:

“If the foreign soldiers were so smart that they knew there were Taliban here, why didn’t they see the women and children who were sleeping? Why do they want to kill us? How can they help us rebuild if they want to kill us? Maybe they should leave,” he shouted.

Khalid said it seemed clear from the villagers that no Taliban fighters were in their village when the bombing occurred.

“It is hard to know when the Taliban are moving around from one place to another, but it seems they weren’t here,” he said.

He has promised to rebuild the homes.

As he walked away from the angry villagers and climbed into his car, Khalid whispered to himself: “And how are we supposed to bring security to the country with this kind of thing happening?”

Elsewhere Wednesday, a rocket hit a house during a nighttime clash between suspected Taliban insurgents and NATO and Afghan security forces in the farming village of Tajikai in Helmand province’s Grishk district, 135 miles west of Kandahar city, police said.

Abdul Rehman, a resident contacted by phone, said the rocket was fired from an aircraft and that the attack killed 13 villagers inside the home. He said relatives of the dead told him all those inside the dried mud house – five women, five children, three men – were killed, including the house’s owner, Nabi Khel.

The rocket attack came after Afghan police called in NATO air support during the clash, which began late Tuesday and left one Taliban militant killed and three police wounded, said provincial police chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhel.

“A civilian home was hit by a rocket, but it’s unsure which side fired it,” Malakhel said. “There were some civilian casualties.”

Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a NATO spokesman, said alliance jets and helicopters fired rockets and dropped bombs on Taliban positions in the area after 2 a.m. Wednesday but could not confirm that they hit a civilian house.

“For the moment, it’s impossible to substantiate that claim,” Chalk said, adding that the Taliban had been using mortars in the area of the clash. About 100 families live in Tajikai.

Southern Afghanistan this year has faced the deadliest spate in violence in the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces five years ago, as newly deployed NATO troops have battled resurgent militants. In Operation Medusa, NATO reported it had killed more than 500 suspected Taliban fighters.

The tough military action has brought with it a risk of civilian deaths. In May, 17 villagers were killed when coalition warplanes attacked Taliban forces in Kandahar province. The U.S. military, which said dozens of militants also died in the fighting, expressed regret over the deaths.

The worst reported incident of civilian deaths from foreign military action in Afghanistan came in July 2002, when a U.S. airstrike in Uruzgan province killed 46 civilians and wounded 117, many of them celebrating at a wedding party.

AP-ES-10-18-06 1756EDT


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