Coalition not gung-ho against Afghan civilians: US general

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US military has said coalition forces in Afghanistan are going to “great lengths” to minimize civilian casualties during attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

UN and Afghan leaders have warned that rising civilian deaths from botched coalition operations are inflaming popular anger against the US-led presence in Afghanistan.

But Brigadier General Perry Wiggins, deputy director for operations of the US military’s Joint Staff, contrasted coalition caution with the methods of the Taliban fundamentalist militia and Al-Qaeda extremists.

“We go to great lengths in order to mitigate civilian casualties,” he told a news conference, underlining that US-led forces have often bypassed targets for fear of causing innocent fatalities.

“We use precision weapons systems. The enemy on the other hand fires from very densely populated areas,” Wiggins added.

According to figures by the UN mission in Kabul, some 600 civilians have died in Afghanistan since the start of this year — half of them falling victim to Afghan and international forces.

Village elders said Sunday they had recovered the bodies of 45 civilians, mostly women and children, killed in foreign air strikes as Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation.

NATO’s force, under fire over the number of civilian casualties, said however it believed fewer than a dozen villagers and a “significant number” of Taliban were killed in Friday’s bombardment in southern Helmand province.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at a conference on Afghanistan in Rome Tuesday, said that the civilian deaths were seriously undermining global efforts to bring peace to the shattered nation.

“We simply cannot hide from the reality that civilian casualties, no matter how accidental, strengthen our enemies and undermine our efforts,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meanwhile pledged that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would do its utmost to prevent civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but underlined but many of the casualties were due to Taliban’s use of locals as human shields.

“No NATO soldier and no coalition soldier will ever intentionally kill civilians,” he said, while adding of the Taliban: “They burn people, they kill women and children.”

Wiggins said his Pentagon office did not compile lists of civilian casualties, but queried whether an “accurate number” was possible given the remoteness of parts of Afghanistan.

He also said that US and ISAF forces had “seized the offensive” against the Taliban, which were thrown out of power in late 2001 but have been resurgent in recent months.

“We have yet to see a summer offensive from the Taliban. I can tell you the attacks are down significantly,” the general said, claiming the militia was finding it hard to replace commanders slain on the battlefield.

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