KABUL (Channel 6 News) — The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on early Monday morning apologized for an airstrike which killed as many as fourteen Afghan civilians, most of them young children.
The incident happened in the Salam Bazaar area of Now Zad district in Helmand province on early Saturday morning after a coalition patrol came under attack from insurgents, killing one ISAF service member.
“Subsequently, the five insurgents occupied and continued to attack again from a compound and in the ensuing battle an airstrike was called to neutralize the threat,” said Major General John Toolan, the Commander of ISAF’s Regional Command South West. “Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians.”
Afghan officials have said the airstrike killed twelve children and two women, although Toolan recognized only nine civilian casualties. “I want to offer my sincere apologies for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident in Now Zad District, Helmand province that occurred on 28 May,” the commander said on behalf of the coalition.
“Any loss of life is a true tragedy and I extend my personal condolences to the families and friends of the U.S. Marine, and to the people of Afghanistan for those who were killed or injured,” Toolan added. “The coalition takes each civilian injury or death extremely seriously. It is our top priority to prevent civilian casualties and we continue to improve our practices and strive to prevent these types of incidents from happening.”
Toolan said an investigation into the airstrike is continuing to determine the exact details of the incident. “While I know there is no price on human life we will ensure that we make amends with the families in accordance with Afghan culture,” he said. “I ask that the Afghan people continue to trust and assist their security forces, so that together we can stop the senseless killing brought upon us by an enemy who wants to exploit the Afghan people through fear and violence. “
According to provincial officials, the ISAF airstrike hit at least two residential homes and killed two women and twelve children who were inside, including five girls and seven boys. A photo published by the Pajhwok Afghan News agency showed the bodies of the victims in the back of a truck after they were recovered from the scene.
The tragic airstrike was strongly condemned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who earlier on Saturday had told ISAF to stop ‘arbitrary operations’ and operations during nighttime. “The U.S. and ISAF forces have repeatedly been told that their irresponsible operations are harming innocent and poor Afghans,” Karzai said on Sunday, adding that NATO does not take their warnings seriously.
Asked for comment, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States is aware of Karzai’s concerns regarding civilian casualties. “Those are concerns that we share and take very seriously,” he said, adding that the U.S. military is working ‘very hard’ to avoid civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi claimed credit for the attack on the coalition patrol and called the ISAF airstrike a continuation of ‘the American genocide.’ “Reports add that in the deliberate terrorist bombing, 14 civilians were martyred which mainly include women and children while two others were severely wounded,” Ahmadi said.
“It is said that the locals took the bodies of the martyrs to the provincial capital Lashkargah city to express their anger and so that the American stooge Gulab Mangal can see with his own eyes who these civilians were,” Ahmadi added, referring to the governor of Helmand.
Saturday’s incident comes at a time when U.S.-Afghan relations are under extreme pressure over a number of incidents involving civilian casualties. In early March, ISAF forces accidentally killed nine children in the Darah-Ye Pech district of Kunar Province.
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And in February, Afghan officials said 64 civilians were killed when ISAF carried out an airstrike in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar province. NATO disputed these findings, saying they were insurgents, even though Afghan officials said 29 children were among the deaths.
According an annual report released and conducted by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the number of conflict-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan increased by 15 percent in 2010.
According to the report, anti-government elements such as the Taliban were linked to 2,080 civilian deaths (75 percent of all civilian deaths), up 28 percent from 2009, while pro-government forces such as ISAF were linked to 440 civilian deaths (16 percent), down 26 percent from 2009. In addition, 9 percent of civilian deaths in 2010 could not be attributed to any party in the conflict.