U.S. says attack on Afghan village targeted Taliban


KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military insisted yesterday that airstrikes on a southern village, which killed at least 16 Afghan civilians, were a legitimate attack on scores of Taliban militants.

In addition to the civilian deaths, as many as 80 members of Taliban militia were killed by the bombardment in the early morning darkness yesterday in the village of Azizi, in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, a U.S. military statement said. Only 20 of the Taliban deaths were confirmed, the statement added, and five Taliban members were detained for interrogation.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has complained for more than two years that U.S. airstrikes that injure or kill civilians undermine his efforts at reconciliation. And after four years of war in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the insurgency is spreading.

After last fall's largely peaceful parliamentary elections, Karzai said it was time for a change of tactics, and called on U.S.-led forces to "concentrate on where terrorists are trained, on their bases, on the supplies to them, on the money coming to them."

In response to questions about yesterday's bombing, Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said in a statement that "coalition forces are aware of media reports of civilian casualties and are continuing to review assessments from ground elements in the region."

For the third time in a week, U.S.-led forces were pursuing Taliban fighters "suspected of terrorist and anti-Afghanistan activities," the spokesman said. "However, during the operation, coalition forces encountered organized armed opposition." Ground forces backed up by U.S. warplanes "engaged the extremists, who were firing on coalition troops and endangering innocent civilians," he added.

"The coalition only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists," the statement said.

Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khalid said the airstrikes killed16 civilians, including women and children, and injured 15 other non-combatants. But he blamed the Taliban.

The governor maintained Taliban militants had taken up positions in the villagers' houses after fleeing an attack on their hideout, which other reports said was a village madrassa, or Islamic school.

"The Taliban used people's houses as their trenches," the governor said.

Ahmad Shah, a field coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kandahar's main hospital, said several civilians were among the wounded.

"I saw women and children brought from Panjwayi district, which I don't think are Taliban or al-Qaida," he said by telephone from Kandahar. "I don't know about the numbers of dead or wounded, but there are plenty of them.

"Neither I, nor any Afghan, will feel good about this. The U.S. military must be careful with their actions."

Karzai has accused Pakistan, which borders his country, of allowing Taliban fighters to operate from its territory. Pakistan's foreign ministry strongly criticized the Afghan charges yesterday.

"It shows their frustration over failing to deal with the internal security situation," Tasneem Aslam, spokeswoman for Pakistan's foreign office, told reporters in Islamabad.

Heavy fighting in southern Afghanistan in recent days is part of a conflict that has going on for many years, she maintained.

"Apart from the Taliban, the warlords continue to wield influence and the problems of drugs and gun-running remain acute, causing problems for neighbors," Aslam said.

"Pakistan is also suffering the consequences of infiltration by terrorist elements from the Afghan side," she added.

Wesal Zaman and Paul Watson write for the Los Angeles Times.

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