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Afghanistan: Bush, De Hoop Scheffer Regret Civilian Deaths

By Andrew Tully

WASHINGTON, May 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to his Texas ranch on May 21, where the two men discussed a range of issues, including the war in Afghanistan, Kosovo's final status, and NATO enlargement.

The most serious part of the two men's discussion was the growing number of Afghan civilians killed by NATO forces doing battle with Taliban insurgents.

Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- who has expressed gratitude to the United States and NATO for their presence in his country -- has complained bitterly about the number of innocent people killed in the fighting.

Taliban Using 'Human Shields'

Both Bush and de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after their meeting that they deeply regret the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan, but they accused the Taliban of using civilians as human shields.

"We care deeply about protecting innocent life. And to those Afghans who've lost innocent civilians, we grieve with you," Bush said. "To the Afghan families that have been affected by the Taliban using them as shields, we have great sympathy. We do not have sympathy, however, for the tactics of the Taliban."

One reporter asked de Hoop Scheffer if he believed NATO was winning the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people despite the continuing deaths of civilians.

"I think, if you talk about and ask me about the hearts and minds in Afghanistan, we still have very much the hearts and minds of the Afghan people because they do see -- they do see -- that their nation, their own nation has no future under Taliban rule," de Hoop Scheffer replied. "And I only have to refer to the kinds and type of Afghanistan that we saw -- that you and I saw -- under Taliban rule -- a regime with the most gross human rights violations that the world has seen."

De Hoop Scheffer said he recently told the Afghan president that NATO commanders are doing all they can to avoid civilian casualties.

Stability In Europe

Bush and de Hoop Scheffer also discussed Kosovo, and de Hoop Scheffer strongly endorsed the proposal by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari that Kosovo become independent.

"I would like to see, as NATO secretary-general -- we have 16,000 NATO forces in Kosovo to create an element, an environment I should say, of stability and security -- that we see a [UN] Security Council resolution so that the Ahtisaari proposals can be brought into effect," he said. "So a resolution is important. The Ahtisaari proposals are good proposals."

On another topic, Bush praised de Hoop Scheffer for working to transform NATO from what he called a "Cold War institution" to an alliance tailored to the needs of the 21st century.

One part of that transformation, Bush said, is enlargement. He said he was looking forward to attending the NATO summit next year in Bucharest to discuss enlargement with leaders of the alliance's other 25 member nations.

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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