By ALISA TANG, Associated Press
Afghans can no longer accept or understand civilian deaths from international military operations, President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday after officials said 51 villagers were killed during a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban in western Afghanistan.
Despite claims that women and children were among the dead, the U.S. military maintained it had no reports of civilian casualties. But rising public anger was evident as students staged a fourth day of anti-American protests in an eastern city over civilian deaths.
Karzai met with NATO, U.S. and European Union officials, telling them that “civilian deaths and arbitrary decisions to search people’s houses have reached an unacceptable level, and Afghans cannot put up with it any longer,” according to a statement from his office.
During an earlier news conference, Karzai said Afghans had reached their limit after the years of conflict since the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001.
“The intention is very good in these operations to fight terrorism. Sometimes mistakes have been made as well, but five years on, it is very difficult for us to continue to accept civilian casualties,” Karzai told reporters.
“We can no longer accept civilian casualties the way they occur,” he added. “It is not understandable anymore.”
The U.S.-led coalition said the military operation in western Herat province was conducted between Friday and Sunday by U.S. and Afghan troops in the Zerkoh Valley and killed 136 suspected Taliban militants â€” the deadliest fighting in Afghanistan since January.
The bloodshed sparked angry anti-U.S. protests earlier this week by villagers. Mohammad Homayoun Azizi, chief of Herat’s provincial council, said two council members who visited the area along with Afghan police and intelligence officers reported that 51 civilians were killed.
Azizi said the bodies were buried in three locations and included women and children. The dead included 12 relatives of a man named Jamal Mirzai, he said.
A man being treated in a hospital Wednesday said he was wounded by an airstrike that did not hit any insurgents. “There were no Taliban. Ten of my relatives have been killed, including two of my cousins,” said the man, who gave only his first name, Mohammed.
Osman Kalali, a lawmaker who was part of the investigative delegation, said they did not see any Taliban or other militants among the dead. “The casualties were women, children, this kind of people,” he said.
Civilian deaths have deepened Afghans’ distrust of international forces and of the U.S.-backed government as they try to combat a resurgent Taliban â€” itself accused by human rights groups of indiscriminate attacks that often kill noncombatants.
“We do everything we can to prevent civilian casualties in our operations, and we have no reports of civilian casualties in that operation” in Herat, said a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Maj. Chris Belcher.
Officials in Italy, which has troops with NATO in Herat, have criticized recent operations there, amid concerns that civilian deaths could make Italian soldiers a target.
“Military operations that hit the civilian population risk alienating that same population,” the ANSA news agency quoted Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema as saying.
U.N. officials were in the region for their own investigation into the “possible displacement of people and possible indiscriminate use of force,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. He provided no details on their findings.
In Afghanistan’s east, meanwhile, students burned a U.S. flag during the latest in a series of protests in Jalalabad over the killings of five people, including a woman and teenage girl, during a coalition-led raid over the weekend.
According to an Associated Press tally, 151 civilians have been killed by violence in the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on NATO and the U.S.-led coalition. The figures do not include the most recent operation in Herat.
The last large-scale civilian deaths were in October, when between 30 and 80 civilians were reported killed during NATO airstrikes in Panjwayi, a volatile district in southern Afghanistan. NATO said a preliminary inquiry found 12 civilian deaths.
A recent Human Rights Watch report said NATO and U.S. military operations killed at least 230 civilians last year. However, most of the 900 civilian combat fatalities during 2006 were from insurgent attacks, it said.