Afghan chief seeks end to air raids
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WECH BAGHTU, Afghanistan -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday congratulated Sen. Barack Obama on his win, but urged the new president-elect to halt civilian casualties, as villagers said U.S. warplanes bombed a wedding party, killing 37, most of them children.
Mr. Karzai said airstrikes can't win the fight against terrorism. "Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan," he said. "We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes. This is my first demand of the new president of the United States: to put an end to civilian casualties."
Mr. Karzai spoke about the deaths at a news conference held to congratulate Mr. Obama on his election victory. Mr. Obama has talked about the issue of Afghan civilian deaths in the past. In remarks in August that drew criticism from Republicans, Mr. Obama said: "We've got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there."
The U.S. military said it was investigating the deaths from the bombing of remote Wech Baghtu, in the southern province of Kandahar. A villager said U.S. forces had given them permission to bury the dead, which he said included 23 children and 10 women.
Cmdr. Jeff Bender, a U.S. spokesman, said that "if innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences."
Abdul Jalil, 37, a grape farmer whose niece was getting married, told an Associated Press reporter at the scene of the bombing that U.S. troops and Taliban fighters had been fighting about a half-mile from his home. Aircraft destroyed his compound and killed 37 people, Mr. Jalil said.
Mr. Karzai's office said the attack killed about 40 people and wounded 28. The bodies were buried before the AP reporter arrived, and he could not verify the death toll.
Mohammad Nabi Khan, who witnessed the bombing, told the AP at the main hospital in Kandahar city that two of his sons, ages 4 and 11, and his wife's brother were among the dead. "What kind of security are the foreign troops providing in Afghanistan?" he asked.
Wedding parties in Afghanistan are segregated by gender, explaining why so many women and children could have died.
In a statement from his office, Mr. Karzai condemned the civilian deaths and urged military forces to avoid Afghan villages, and instead concentrate on the "sources" of terrorism -- a clear reference to Pakistan.
Civilian casualties, which undermine popular support for the Afghan government and the international mission, have long been a point of friction between Mr. Karzai and the United States or NATO. According to an AP count of civilian deaths this year, U.S. or NATO forces have killed at least 275 civilians, while 590 have died from militant-caused violence such as suicide bombs.
The airstrikes in Kandahar come three months after the Afghan government found that a U.S. operation killed some 90 civilians in the a western village. After initially denying any civilians had died there, a U.S. report ultimately concluded that 33 civilians died.
After that operation, Mr. Karzai said relations between Afghanistan and the United States were seriously damaged.
Mr. Jalil said U.S. forces entered his village late Monday night or early Tuesday, after the bombing run, and searched villagers, detaining some. He said he told those forces they could search his vineyards and home but would find no militants.
First Published November 6, 2008 2:24 am