KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday condemned a U.S-led coalition air strike his government says killed 76 civilians, most of them women and children.
Civilian casualties are an emotive issue for Afghans, many of whom feel foreign forces take too little care when launching air strikes. Support for the presence of international troops is waning and anti-U.S. demonstrations broke out on Saturday.
The issue has also led to a rift between the Afghan government and its Western backers, with Karzai saying recently that foreign air strikes have achieved nothing but the deaths of civilians.
“Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemns the uncoordinated air strike by coalition forces in Shindand district of Herat province which resulted in the death of at least 70 people including women and children,” the president’s office said in a statement.
The U.S. military says only armed Taliban militants were killed in Friday’s attack.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Shindand district on Saturday, saying Americans should withdraw from the area.
“We will continue our demonstration till the international community listens to us and bring those who carried out yesterday’s attack to justice,” village elder Shah Nawaz told Reuters.
Nearly 700 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, 255 of them by Afghan government and international troops, the rest by Taliban militants, the United Nations says.
Aircraft targeted a known Taliban commander in the district early Friday after Afghan and coalition forces came under attack from insurgents, the U.S. military said.
Thirty militants, including a Taliban commander, were killed in the strike and only two civilians had been wounded, it said.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said coalition forces bombarded the Azizabad area of Shindand district on Friday afternoon, killing 76 civilians, including 19 women, seven men and the rest children under the age of 15.
The U.S. military said it was aware of allegations of civilian casualties but said those killed were militants.
“Our reports from our own forces on the ground are only, so far, that those killed in the strikes were 30 and they were all militants,” said a U.S. military spokesman.
“All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously,” the U.S. military said in a statement. “An investigation has been directed.”
The demonstrations erupted in Shindand after Afghan soldiers arrived in the area to bring aid to the victim’s families, Nawaz said, adding Afghan soldiers fired shots into the air and wounded six people after the crowd threw stones.
“People didn’t accept the aid and started throwing stones at the soldiers saying the Afghan army is our enemy, we don’t want anything from our enemies,” he said.
The U.N.’s special envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said he was aware of conflicting reports of casualties in Shindand and called for the incident to be investigated “thoroughly and quickly” before any conclusions were made.
“The United Nations has always made clear that civilian casualties are unacceptable – they undermine the trust and confidence of the Afghan people,” said Eide in a statement.
“Every effort that can be made – must be made – to ensure the safety and welfare of the civilian population where military operations are conducted,” he said.