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Afghanistan: NATO Killing Of Civilians Stirs Controversy

By Breffni O'Rourke

March 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some 20 Afghan civilians have died since March 4 as a result of attacks from U.S. and NATO forces, and this is provoking anger in Afghanistan.

Officials of coalition forces in Afghanistan say that militants often make their attacks against international forces in populated areas, therefore ensuring civilian casualties in firefights.

Difficult Situation

A large protest was held today in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where hundreds of students took to the streets chanting anti-American slogans.

"Any attempt to draw a moral comparison between terrorists who kill innocents as a matter of policy and the United States, which is trying to save innocents as a matter of policy, is utterly unwarranted," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow sought to explain the difficulty of avoiding civilian casualties when Taliban insurgents deliberately stage their attacks in populated areas in order to cause the deaths of noncombatants.

"In a time of war you can never fully -- if somebody tries to hold innocent civilians, put them in harm's way -- it's very difficult to at all times avoid unfortunate circumstances," he said.

Snow went on to firmly reject any notion that the behavior of U.S. troops can be compared with those of the Taliban.

Greater Care Urged

But rights groups and analysts say the United States and other NATO forces must try harder to avoid civilian casualties if they want to keep the Afghan population on their side.

Brad Adams, spokesman of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says coalition forces do not have "carte blanche" to respond to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate fire.

The first incident to arouse public anger came on March 4, when insurgents attacked a convoy of U.S. Marines with a bomb and gunfire as it was passing through a populated area in the Batikot district near Jalalabad. The troops replied with defensive fire but, according to witnesses

at the scene, kept firing after the insurgents had fled. By official count, 10 civilians died.
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement calling for a full enquiry into the incident. Karzai's credibility is at stake in such events. Hundreds of demonstrators who staged a protest in Jalalabad later the same day chanted slogans calling for Karzai's death.

The HRW's Adams also expressed concern that the U.S. military apparently attempted "to control information" at the scene of the Jalalabad ambush.

Censorship Charges

AP reports that troops took cameras from a photojournalist and two television camera operators and deleted images. The Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has condemned that alleged action.

The second incident came March 5, when NATO aircraft bombed a house in Kapisa Province, north of Kabul. Afghan officials said nine family members and three insurgents were killed. The raid came after insurgents fired a rocket from the area at the nearby U.S. military air base at Bagram. The U.S. military said the insurgents were using civilians as human shields.

A student protester named Habibullah today spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, saying foreign troops had often been wrong.

"This protest is about [the NATO-led] ISAF's attack on innocent people in the Batikot district [in Nangarhar Province] on [March 4] and also in Kapisa Province," he said. "Foreign troops in Afghanistan have done a lot more against Afghanistan's customs, traditions, and culture, especially the incident in Batikot is a very big mistake and atrocity against innocent people. They killed innocent people."

Afghans say the U.S.-led coalition should concentrate on helping rebuild the country, as was originally foreseen when the troops arrived, but which has proven difficult because of the poor security situation.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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