Aid groups decry Afghan civilian deaths

KABUL, Afghanistan – Goodwill toward foreign forces is eroding across Afghanistan because airstrikes and botched raids by U.S. and NATO troops have killed at least 230 civilians this year, an umbrella group for aid agencies said Tuesday.The complaint followed reports of dozens of civilian deaths in recent days during fierce fighting sparked by a Taliban offensive in Uruzgan, a key southern province. Insurgents also pushed Afghan police out of a remote district in neighboring Kandahar province.

Noncombatant casualties the past several days — whether caused by foreign troops or the Taliban — have fed public anger toward President Hamid Karzai’s government and the foreign soldiers supporting it. Karzai has pleaded repeatedly for international forces to coordinate more closely with Afghan authorities to protect civilians in battle zones.

U.S. and NATO commanders say their forces do all they can to avoid civilian casualties.

A group representing 94 foreign and Afghan aid agencies, including Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE International, laid much of the blame for civilian deaths on U.S. actions, contending indiscriminate use of force is causing the death of innocents.

“Such operations have frequently been by carried out by forces or agencies outside NATO command, often American forces in Operation Enduring Freedom, and sometimes in conjunction with Afghan forces,” the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said in a statement.

The aid group said international and Afghan forces were responsible for the deaths of at least 230 civilians this year, including 60 women and children. Among them, it said, were nine people killed in a “botched house raid,” dozens in airstrikes and 14 “for simply driving or walking too close to international military personnel or vehicles.”

An Associated Press tally based on figures from Western military, Afghan officials and eyewitness accounts puts the total through June 17 at 152, while 169 were killed by insurgents.

It was not clear how the umbrella group arrived at their higher total.

“Initial goodwill towards the international military presence in 2002 has substantially diminished in many parts of the country,” the statement said. “Excessive use of force and abusive raids and searches are undermining support not just for foreign and Afghan militaries but those involved in humanitarian and development work.”

Afghan officials reported dozens of civilians killed in the Chora district of Uruzgan province, where hundreds of Taliban fighters assaulted police posts Saturday, drawing a counterattack by NATO troops and fighter jets. Fighting continued Tuesday.

“It has been a contested area for some number of months,” said a NATO spokesman, Maj. John Thomas. “(The Taliban) are making an effort right now to establish control in that area.”

Thomas said he could not say how many insurgents were fighting NATO troops in Uruzgan.

Late Monday, Taliban fighters overran Miya Nishin district in Kandahar province, provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai said. An operation was planned to retake the area, he said.

The insurgent push appeared to be the biggest Taliban offensive of the year and marked a change in tactics. Militants had relied largely on suicide and roadside bombings this year as NATO troops ramped up operations to root them out.

Violence has swelled in recent weeks, pushing the year’s death toll to about 2,400, many of them insurgents, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Western military and Afghan officials.

Precise casualty figures in Chora were not available, though two Afghan officials said more than 100 people had been killed, including at least 16 policemen. A Dutch soldier also died.

Thomas said he doubted Afghan officials could tell the difference between civilians and militants, suggesting some of the wounded who claimed to be civilians were insurgents.

A case of disputed identities occurred in Kandahar city, where foreign troops raided a housing complex late Monday, killing one man and detaining 10 people, witnesses and relatives said.

The U.S.-led coalition said the operation was “against a Taliban target, and initial reports indicate that one enemy was killed.” At the scene, Bacha Khan said his brother was killed, but insisted he was a tailor with no links to the Taliban.

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