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Karzai Promises Punishment For Afghan Civilian Casualties

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) arrives in the village of Azizabad in the district of Shindand.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) arrives in the village of Azizabad in the district of Shindand.

AZIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has visited grieving relatives of civilians said to have died in a U.S.-led coalition strike last month, promising swift punishment for those responsible.

Anger has mounted over the August 22 raid in western Herat's Shindand district in which the Afghan government says more than 90 people, mostly women and children, were killed, an allegation backed by the United Nations.

The U.S. military disputes the figure, saying its investigation found five to seven civilians were killed in the operation carried out with the Afghan National Army.

"I have been working day and night in the past five years to prevent such incidents, but I haven't been successful in my efforts," Karzai told a 1,000-strong crowd that gathered near the bombed village demanding action against those guilty.

"If I had succeeded, the people of Azizabad wouldn't be bathed in blood," said Karzai, who later flew over the bombed village. He told the elders that he would ensure that those responsible would be brought to justice.

'No Taliban In Area'

Villagers said that false information about the presence of the Taliban in the area had been fed to the coalition forces which led to the raid.

"We want those people to be punished," said Gul Ahmad, who lost his wife and two children in the attack. "There were no Taliban in the area. I don't even have a weapon at home."

More than 500 civilians have been killed during operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants so far this year, according to the Afghan government and some aid groups, fueling anger and causing a rift with foreign forces.

The U.S. military said its investigation of the operation in the Shindand district of Herat Province found that a top Taliban commander was among the 30 to 35 insurgents killed.

It said that the air strike was called after Afghan Army and U.S.-led coalition forces came under intense fire during a planned offensive in the Shindand area.

Taliban militants had planned to attack a nearby coalition base, the U.S. military said, citing evidence such as weapons, explosives, and intelligence materials.

The U.S. military has offered a three-way investigation into the civilian deaths, which the Afghan government has agreed to take part in. The United Nations will be the other member of the probe team.

Karzai also told relatives of the victims he had spoken with George W. Bush about the incident on September 3 and that the U.S. leader had conveyed his regret.
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