31 killed in Afghanistan air strike

June 11, 2008 4:20:08 AM PDT
Airstrikes targeting two militant leaders in eastern Afghanistan killed 31 people early Wednesday, including several civilians, officials said. Most of the 31 killed were militants, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. But Khalid Farooqi, a lawmaker from Paktika, said at least nine civilians died.

The U.S.-led coalition said four civilians were killed - three women and a boy. The U.S. also said "several militants" were killed and that 12 were detained in the operation in Paktika' province's Mata Khan district.

"Any loss of non-combatant life is certainly tragic, however, the blood is on the hands of the militants who choose to fire on coalition forces from these areas with their families present," said Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, the top U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan.

It was impossible to verify the claims of numbers killed at the remote and dangerous battle site.

Civilian casualties have been a recurring problem for U.S. and NATO forces over the years because such deaths threaten to undermine support for the international coalition and the government of President Hamid Karzai, who has pleaded with international forces to avoid harming civilians.

After a spate of civilian deaths in mid-2007, the U.S. and NATO said they changed some of their targeting practices, and the number of civilian deaths has dropped over the last year.

The U.S. coalition said troops in Paktika province were targeting two militants leaders involved in setting up attacks with explosives and helping foreign fighters. The coalition troops were fired on and responded with airstrikes and gunfire, a statement said.

The coalition said military medics treated three Afghan women and a boy on site, and then evacuated the four for treatment at a military base, where two of the women and the boy died. A third women had already died.

The operation apparently targeted militant commander Mullah Mohammad Nabi and at least eight fighters who served under him, said Farooqi.

Four children, two teachers and three women among those killed, Farooqi said. He warned of consequences if civilians are killed in future operations.

"It has very dangerous consequences if they repeat it in the future," he said. "Fighting is not the solution. Negotiations, understanding, is the way forward. ... Civilian casualties are very sad news."