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Afghan President Condemns Civilian Killings, U.S. To Probe Strike

President Karzai (right, with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer) faces intense public pressure over civilian killings
KABUL -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned a U.S-led air strike that his government says killed 76 civilians, most of them women and children.

Nearly seven years after the international coalition launched its campaign to oust the Taliban and root out Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, civilian casualties are an emotive issue for Afghans, many of whom feel foreign forces take too little care when launching air strikes.

Support for the presence of international troops is waning and anti-U.S. demonstrations have broken out in at least one city.

The issue has also led to a rift between the Afghan government and its Western backers, with Karzai saying recently that foreign air strikes have achieved nothing but the deaths of civilians.

"Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemns the uncoordinated air strike by coalition forces in Shindand district of Herat Province which resulted in the death of at least 70 people, including women and children," the president's office said in a statement.

The U.S. military has said its reports suggest that only armed Taliban militants were killed in the August 22 attack but has also announced its own investigation into the incident.

Nearly 700 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, 255 of them by Afghan government and international troops, the rest by Taliban militants, the United Nations says.

Aircraft targeted a known Taliban commander in the district in the early hours of August 22 after Afghan and coalition forces came under attack from insurgents, the U.S. military said. Thirty militants, including a Taliban commander, were killed in the strike and only two civilians had been wounded, it said.

The Afghan Interior Ministry said coalition forces bombarded the Azizabad area of Shindand district on the afternoon of August 22, killing 76 civilians, including 19 women, seven men, and the rest children under the age of 15.

The U.S. military said it was aware of allegations of civilian casualties but said those killed were militants. "Our reports from our own forces on the ground are only, so far, that those killed in the strikes were 30 and they were all militants," said a spokesman.

"All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives," the U.S. military said in a statement. "An investigation has been directed," it said.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said it was aware of conflicting reports of casualties in Shindand.

"It is imperative that we exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions. The issue of civilian casualties is so important that it is vital that we verify the facts of what has actually happened," said UN spokesman Aleem Siddique.

"It is a matter of great concern that we are seeing reports of large numbers of civilian casualties. The first rule of any counter-insurgency operation is to do no harm," Siddique said.

Hundreds of people have demonstrated in Shindand district, shouting anti-U.S. slogans, after Afghan soldiers arrived in the area to bring aid to the victims' families, a village elder told Reuters.

"People didn't accept the aid and started throwing stones at the soldiers saying the Afghan army is our enemy, we dont want anything from our enemies," said Shah Nawaz.

Afghan soldiers fired shots into the air and wounded six people after the crowd threw stones, he said.

"We will continue our demonstration till the international community listen to us and bring those who carried out yesterday's attack to justice," said Nawaz.

The demonstrators also shouted anti-U.S. slogans, saying Americans should withdraw from the area.