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Thirty Afghan civilians killed in NATO strike: Investigation

Last Updated: Monday, September 14, 2009 - 13:15

Kabul: Thirty Afghan civilians and 69 Taliban were killed in a NATO air strike on fuel trucks hijacked by militants in northern Kunduz early this month, a government-appointed investigator said on Sunday.
The bombing in the increasingly restive province on September 4 revived controversy about civilian casualties in Western military operations here, a frequent source of friction with the government and Afghan people.

"Thirty civilians were martyred and nine were wounded," said Mohamadullah Bataj, one of a team of four appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the incident.

"Sixty-nine of the Taliban were killed -- armed and unarmed."

Bataj said 49 armed and 20 unarmed Taliban were killed. He said 11 militants were also wounded in the strike, which hit as villagers gathered to siphon fuel from tankers captured by the Islamist insurgents.

The NATO-led coalition has acknowledged that civilians were killed or injured in the strike but has yet to release details of its own parallel investigation. The United Nations has also promised a report into the strike.

Bataj gave no further details about the incident, with the full government-commissioned report due to be released in the coming days.

The strike by US aircraft was reportedly ordered by a German commander after Taliban militants hijacked two fuel trucks on a NATO supply route from Tajikistan, as he feared the vehicles could be used as mobile bombs.

The air strike destroyed both fuel tankers at a time when witnesses said villagers had rushed towards the vehicles, carrying containers to collect free fuel at the insurgents` invitation.

Police said on the day that children were among those killed but there have been widely differing estimates of the number of casualties.

Civilian deaths during Western military operations are hugely sensitive and a major source of tension with the government of Karzai, who is ahead in the vote count after fraud-tainted presidential elections on August 20.

There are about 100,000 NATO and US-led troops stationed in Afghanistan, helping the government fight a Taliban insurgency that is at its most deadly since the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the hardline regime.

The air strike underscored the increasing Taliban presence in parts of the north that straddle a new supply route for foreign troops coming through Tajikistan in order to minimise dependence on the volatile route from Pakistan.

The Taliban are demanding all foreign soldiers leave Afghanistan, and often use civilian casualties to drum up support. They claim that 79 civilians were killed in the Kunduz strike.

German troops have responsibility for Kunduz, and the incident has become a major issue in campaigning for elections in Germany later this month, with Chancellor Angela Merkel defending the incident in parliament.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan is falling in most coalition countries, as foreign military deaths reach record levels.

Bureau Report

First Published: Monday, September 14, 2009 - 13:15

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