Civilian deaths rise as Afghan fight intensifies

Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday to protest against mounting civilian deaths as the new US and NATO commander considers loosening combat rules to better protect foreign troops.

Last Updated: Jul 10, 2010, 16:10 PM IST

Kabul: Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday to protest against mounting civilian deaths as the new US and NATO commander considers loosening combat rules to better protect foreign troops.

The protesters chanted slogans against foreign forces and Afghan President Hamid Karzai after US troops killed two civilians and arrested three others during a pre-dawn raid on Wednesday in the northern city`s outskirts.

NATO admitted killing six people with stray artillery on Thursday, a day after an airstrike accidentally killed five Afghan soldiers.

Civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths among Afghan security forces have been a frequent irritant between Karzai and Western military forces during the nine-year war since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.

General David Petraeus, the US general tapped by Washington to take over the Afghan war after his predecessor criticized senior administration officials, last week wrote to international troops to warn civilian deaths must be kept at a minimum.

Decisive Terrain

"We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain," Petraeus, who masterminded the Iraq counter-insurgency, wrote to 150,000 US and NATO troops preparing an all-out offensive against the Taliban in the south.

In Kabul, The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said joint Afghan and NATO investigation team found six civilians died on Thursday when artillery shells went astray in the Jani Khel district of Paktia Province.

"ISAF officials offer sincere condolences to those affected and accept full responsibility for the actions that led to this tragic incident," the alliance statement, received late on Friday, said.

The country`s interior ministry initially blamed the deaths on a rocket fired by insurgents hitting a local bazaar. ISAF said commanders had held two days of meetings, or "shuras," with local elders in Jani Khel to discuss the incident.

Five Afghan government soldiers were accidentally killed and two others wounded in a pre-dawn NATO helicopter airstrike on Wednesday, prompting condemnation from the government.

The attack took place after an aircraft mistook Afghan National Army soldiers for Taliban insurgents during an operation in southwest Ghazni.

Sensitive Change

Petraeus is considering a sensitive change to rules of engagement drawn up his predecessor to avoid civilian casualties, following complaints they tie the hands of coalition troops combating insurgents.

The latest deaths will make any relaxation more difficult and may prompt more strains with the government.

Karzai is already annoyed over plans outlined by Petraeus for Afghan villagers to form militia-style defense groups to help fight the Taliban on their own, The Washington Post newspaper said on Saturday.

Casualties among NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan hit a high in June and commanders expect violence to rise in parallel with an anti-insurgent offensive in coming months, raising questions about whether more can be done to protect troops.

Bombers including one suicide attacker hit two separate NATO convoys in eastern Khost and northern Kunduz on Saturday, causing no international casualties but showing the growing insurgency can reach well beyond the Taliban`s southern strongholds.

Two coalition soldiers were killed on Friday in separate bomb attacks, NATO said, while a suicide car bomb hit an alliance convoy on a bridge outside Jalalabad, killing one civilian and wounding nine others.

Bureau Report