AFP – Investigations into a US-led offensive in western Afghanistan at the weekend found around 50 civilians were killed, officials said Wednesday, as President Hamid Karzai summoned the top US general over the casualties.
The US-led coalition has said it is not aware of any civilian deaths following the offensive, which involved intense bombing and ground fighting in the western province of Herat on Friday and Sunday.
The coalition, which invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and helped to topple the Taliban government, said 136 Taliban fighters were killed.
But hundreds of demonstrators torched government offices in Herat’s Shindand district Monday, insisting civilians were among the dead.
A United Nations investigation had so far found that 49 civilians lost their lives in the operation in the Zerkoh Valley, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Herat city, spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
Police inquiries showed 51 civilians were dead, the police spokesman for western Afghanistan, Akramudin Yawar, told AFP. This included “18 women and a number children,” he said.
A team appointed by the provincial governor, Sayed Hussain Anwari, said 42 civilians were killed and 55 other civilians wounded, said the governor’s spokeswoman Farzana Ahmadi.
Around 1,600 families had fled the area because of the fighting and 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, she said.
The figures are among the highest for civilians killed in military operations in Afghanistan.
Karzai summoned foreign military and diplomatic chiefs to his palace Wednesday, telling reporters afterwards civilian casualties were unacceptable and a “heavy burden”.
“We can no longer accept civilian casualties,” Karzai said after the meeting, which included the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeil of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and US ambassador William B. Wood.
“We are very sorry when an international coalition forces, NATO soldier loses life or is wounded … But Afghans are human beings too,” he said.
“What we are seeking is value to Afghan lives,” he said.
Karzai, who has made similar calls to the foreign forces before, said that things must change or “the consequences will be bad for all of us.”
But there were claims of new deaths in the southern province of Kandahar, where officials said civilians, including two women, were among 13 people killed in fighting Tuesday between police and coalition forces and suspected militants.
Meanwhile, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, university students torched a US flag and chanted “Death to (US President George W. Bush)” in fresh protests over six people killed on Sunday, whom they said were civilians.
The coalition says four of those killed were militants from a suspected suicide bombing cell, and that a woman and a teenager were caught in the crossfire.
About 50,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan, either with the coalition or ISAF, to help the fragile government assert itself over Taliban and other Islamist rebels.
The governor of Kandahar province in the south said civilians were among 13 people killed in a gunfight at a checkpoint on Tuesday that started when militants in a car opened fire on police.
“We don’t know yet how many of them were Taliban and how many civilians, though we know that two women were also killed,” provincial governor Asadullah Kahlid said.
The coalition said earlier that its forces were involved and five insurgents were killed.
In Italy, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said Wednesday the “modalities” of the Herat offensive were a concern, with the effort in Afghanistan requiring the defeat of “terrorists” but also the consensus of civilians.
The operation was in an area where 800 Italian troops are based, although they were precluded from the offensive by the terms of their mission