NATO investigates 25 civilian deaths in airstrikes

The Baltimore Sun

KABUL, Afghanistan -- NATO forces said yesterday that they were investigating reports that 25 Afghan civilians were killed in overnight airstrikes in southern Afghanistan.

The mounting civilian casualty toll in Afghanistan is eroding public support for the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

After the report of the latest deaths, Karzai told the BBC that accidental killings and injuries of civilians at the hands of coalition forces are "difficult for us to accept or understand."

The Afghan leader has repeatedly appealed to international forces to exercise greater caution during clashes in civilian areas. NATO has blamed the Taliban for using civilians as shields.

It was the second report this week of multiple civilian casualties in airstrikes aimed at insurgents. On Monday, seven children ages 10 to 16 were killed when U.S. forces bombed a compound that they said militants were using as a hide-out.

The latest incident occurred in Helmand province, in the former Taliban heartland that has been the site of heavy fighting between NATO forces and insurgents.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that Western and Afghan troops were attacked Thursday night by Taliban fighters about 10 miles northeast of Gereshk. In response, the NATO forces called in an airstrike on a compound where about 30 insurgents were thought to be hiding.

"We are concerned about reports that some civilians may have lost their lives during this attack," said Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a spokesman for Western forces in the South. "However, it must be noted that it was the insurgents who initiated this attack. ... The risk to civilians was probably deliberate."

About 28,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan, with 20,000 from other NATO countries.

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