NATO: 60 insurgents killed near Pakistan

By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer
FORWARD OPERATING BASE THUNDER, Afghanistan – NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces killed about 60 insurgents Friday along the border with Pakistan, the military said, while local officials in the south reported that a NATO airstrike killed 25 civilians. NATO accused Taliban fighters of provoking the strike that reportedly killed the civilians, including three infants and nine women.

In the border violence, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said about 60 insurgents attempted to attack Afghan and ISAF forces in the Bermel district of Paktika province. The insurgents fired on aircraft, and NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces returned fire, killing about 60 fighters, an ISAF statement said.

The ISAF statement, issued early Saturday morning in this forward operating base, said it was the “largest formation observed since Jan. 10 maneuvering in this area.” In January U.S. forces said they had killed around 130 of 180 insurgents crossing the border.

“These individuals clearly had weapons and used them against our aircraft as well as shooting rockets against our positions. This demonstrated intent to cause serious harm to the people of Bermel … This required their removal from the battle-space,” Col. Martin P. Schweitzer, commander of Task Force Fury, said in a statement. The ISAF said there were no casualties on its side.

Meanwhile, in Kandahar province, Afghan and coalition soldiers killed nearly 20 enemy fighters during a seven-hour firefight, a coalition statement said.

The allegations of the civilian deaths come amid a new surge of criticism over such killings during attacks by foreign forces — a debate that underlines how the five-year-old war against insurgents is also a struggle for hearts and minds among long-suffering Afghans and voters in NATO nations.

President Hamid Karzai and others have long complained that civilian losses in NATO or U.S.-led operations are undermining the effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

NATO commanders are adamant that the militants — not foreign forces — deserve most of the blame for the toll among civilians, and said the overnight bloodshed in southern Helmand province was just such a case.

An alliance statement said NATO aircraft struck after Taliban fighters attacked troops from NATO’s ISAF nine miles northeast of the town of Gereshk.

“A compound was assessed to have been occupied by up to 30 insurgent fighters, most of whom were killed in the engagement,” the statement said.

Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a NATO spokesman, expressed concern about Afghan police reports that civilians also died in the airstrike. But he said insurgents chose the time and place for their attack, so “the risk to civilians was probably deliberate.”

“It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties,” he said.

The airstrike killed 20 militants, but it also wiped out two civilian families totaling 25 people, including nine women, three babies and a mullah, provincial Police Chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal told The Associated Press.

It was impossible to verify his account of what happened in the remote area.

If confirmed, the casualties in Gereshk would bring the number of civilians killed in NATO or U.S.-led military operations this year to 177, according to an AP tally of figures provided by Afghan officials and witnesses. Militant attacks, including suicide bombings, have killed 169 civilians.

Schweitzer, the U.S. commander in the region of the border violence, said late Friday that the number of insurgents reported moving over the Afghan-Pakistan border has increased in recent months, though the higher numbers may be due to additional troops observing activity.

Attacks in that region — Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan where the U.S. military operates — rose 250 percent in May compared with May 2006, according to U.S. military information.

Schweitzer is stationed this month at Forward Operating Base Thunder in southern Ghazni province as part of Operation Maiwand, the first operation planned and led by the Afghan National Army.

In a separate interview, Schweitzer said an increase in U.S. and Afghan forces along the border, as well as an increase in cooperation with Pakistan’s military, have led to improved intelligence in the region.

“So I’ve got all these forces, now I can see a lot more, so it’s an increase in reporting of (insurgent) forces moving back and forth. Whether it’s an increase or not it’s hard to measure since we didn’t have the right collection mechanisms out there in the past,” Schweitzer said in an interview at a forward operating base in Ghazni province.

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