US Denies 147 Civilians Killed in Afghan Violence

By: AP
By: AP
Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry return to their base Camp Restrepo in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province on Friday May 8, 2009.  (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry return to their base Camp Restrepo in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province on Friday May 8, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

KABUL – Video of the aftermath of a disputed incident involving American forces and the Taliban shows bloodied bodies of children laid out with other corpses, confirming international Red Cross findings at the two remote villages in western Afghanistan.

The U.S. military does not contest that civilians died but called "extremely over-exaggerated" a report by an Afghan official that as many as 147 were killed.

Afghans blame aerial bombing Monday and Tuesday for the deaths and destruction. U.S. officials have suggested that Taliban fighters caused at least some of the deaths, and said investigators on a joint U.S.-Afghan team were still analyzing data collected in the villages of Ganjabad and Gerani in Farah province.

In a video obtained Friday by Associated Press Television News, villagers are seen wrapping the mangled bodies of some of the victims in blankets and cloths and lining them up on the dusty ground.

In one shot, two children are lifted from a blanket with another adult already in it. The children's faces are blackened, and parts of their tunics are soaked in what appears to be dried blood.

Their limp bodies are then put on the ground, wrapped in another cloth and placed next to the other bodies. It was not clear how many bodies were in the room where the video was shot.

The man who shot the video said many of the bodies he filmed Tuesday in Gerani were in pieces. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from security agencies.

It was not possible to verify independently the authenticity of the video. The International Committee of the Red Cross also has said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in the two villages.

On Thursday, a local official said he collected from residents the names of 147 people killed in the fighting. If true, it would be the deadliest case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.

Villagers "were pointing to graves and saying, 'This is my son, this is my daughter,'" said Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council. He said he gave his tally to the investigators.

The U.S. military described that toll as over the top.

"The investigators and the folks on the ground think that those numbers are extremely over-exaggerated," U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said. "We are definitely nowhere near those estimates."

While past reports of civilian deaths at the hands of international forces drew immediate outcries from President Hamid Karzai's government, this time the response has been muted. The most vehement reaction has come from opposition lawmakers, who demanded an agreement regulating the operations of foreign troops.

After a period of tense relations with the Washington, Karzai appears to have toned down his statements about civilian casualties caused by Western forces even though the issue resonates with Afghan public.

One reason could be that Karzai feels confident he will win re-election in August without further appealing to nationalist emotions, as no strong challenger has emerged and Friday was the deadline for registering as a candidate.

Also, he may not want to stir up anti-American sentiment as the Obama administration rolls out its strategy for the region.

That strategy involves linking success in Afghanistan with security in neighboring Pakistan, where Taliban militants are active along the border. The U.S. has also pledged long-term nonmilitary efforts here — for example, civilian expertise in farming and other specialties — along with an increase of 21,000 U.S. troops.

"If there's one lesson I draw from the past, it is the importance of our staying engaged," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Friday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in northern Afghanistan, shortly before heading back to Washington.

"And if there's a lesson for Americans and the international community, it's that we don't dare turn our backs on Afghanistan. This will work if we stay engaged."

In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, four NATO soldiers and 21 civilians died in a string of insurgent attacks, and an unmanned U.S. drone crashed in central Ghazni province.

Two NATO soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Helmand province Thursday, the alliance announced. The blast also killed 21 civilians and wounded 23 others, said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand's governor.

Initially, only 12 people were reported killed in the attack.

In other incidents, a NATO soldier was killed in a roadside bombing and a British soldier died of a gunshot wound Thursday.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency. Obama has ordered thousands of new troops to join the fight there and reverse the Taliban's gains.

On Friday, a U.S. Air Force Predator drone went down in central Ghazni province's Qarabagh district, Mathias said. She ruled out insurgent activity in the area of the crash.

However, Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said the militants had shot the drone down. It was impossible to verify his claim.

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Associated Press correspondent Lara Jakes in Wardak province contributed to this report.


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