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Fresh Civilian Casualties Weigh On NATO-Kabul Relations

Relatives on February 21 transport the body of an Afghan man killed after an air strike in Nangarhar Province.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has announced that is investigating a claim that it is responsible for killing six family members in an air strike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Afghan officials said a couple and their four children were killed late on February 20 when an errant NATO missile hit their home.

"The air strike was originally targeting three insurgents who were planting mines on a road," Nangarhar Province spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai told AFP.

"In this incident, three people who were placing mines were killed," he told the agency. "Unfortunately, six people in a residential house were also killed."

The statement follows claims by officials in neighboring Konar Province that 64 civilians were killed in raids in the past week.

Simmering Anger

Civilian casualties in NATO-led military operations, often caused by air strikes and night raids, have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers. New episodes of civilian casualties are likely to lead into further disagreements and acrimonious statements.

On February 20, Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the raids in eastern Konar Province, which his office said have killed more than 50 civilians.

In an interview with RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan, Konar Governor Fazlullah Wahidi placed the number of civilians killed during four days of ground and air strikes in the province's Ghazi Abad district at 64.

"There were 13 fighters among the dead, which included 20 women and 29 people aged between seven and 20 years of age," Wahidi said. "There has not been a proper identification of the dead but most of the youngsters probably are innocent."

Over the weekend, scores of civilians injured in the operations were being treated in a hospital in Asadabad, the provincial capital of Konar. Mohammad Ibrahim, a young man from the remote village of Ailgal in Ghazi Abad district who had accompanied family members to the hospital, said that women and children were among the casualties.

He said that on February 18 at 10 p.m. "NATO bombarded the area and killed and wounded at least 52 people. Twelve of them were men. Thirty children and 10 women were among the dead and wounded"

Another Ailgal resident -- who gave only his first name, Farhad -- told Radio Free Afghanistan that 62 people were killed and 17 were injured.

ISAF spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said the force's investigation of the Konar casualty claims would center on a firefight that began in a rugged and remote area on February 18. He said ISAF had "clear intelligence" that Taliban leaders were planning a meeting that evening and that surveillance footage from weapons systems did not indicate any civilians or permanent settlements were in the area.

Rising, Not Falling?

Rules governing air strikes and night raids have been tightened significantly by NATO-led forces in the past two years, leading to a drop in civilian casualties.

A United Nations report late last year found that civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 20 percent in the first 10 months of 2010 compared to 2009, with more than three-quarters of them killed or wounded by insurgents.

The report found there were 6,215 civilian casualties in the period, including 2,412 deaths. Those caused by Afghan and foreign "pro-government" forces accounted for 12 percent of the total, an 18 percent drop.

Meanwhile, officials say a suicide blast in northern Afghanistan has killed at least 28 people and injured 32. Government official Mohammad Ayoub Haqyar said the suicide bomber struck a line of people as they were queuing for identification cards in the Imam Saheb district of Konduz Province, where the Taliban have increased their activities in the past few years.

compiled from agency and RFE/RL reports
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