Karzai pledges Afghan security

Amid bombing furor, leader visits Kandahar


KABUL, Afghanistan --President Hamid Karzai made a surprise visit yesterday to Kandahar, his hometown in the south, to meet with civilians wounded Sunday in a U.S. bombing nearby.

Thousands of villagers have fled their homes and sought refuge in Kandahar because of the airstrikes and some of the most intense fighting since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The president's visit was fleeting, and security was heavy. Karzai narrowly survived an assassination attempt there in 2002. Speaking to a gathering of Pashtun tribal elders, he vowed to bring security to the region.

"He told us not to be worried about the situation, that let's wait and see, and that we will bring security," said Hajji Agha Lalai Dastagiri, a member of the newly elected provincial council.

"He promised the people that he would build Afghanistan, that God would rebuild it, that the international community was with us, and they would build Afghanistan and bring security to this region," Dastagiri said. "People were telling him we really need security, but that we do not need foreign troops and helicopters and tanks anymore: We Afghans should take care of it."

Taliban insurgents have appeared in force in recent weeks across southern Afghanistan, apparently in an effort to derail the deployment by NATO as it prepares to take over from U.S. forces. Some of the heaviest fighting has taken place in Kandahar province and neighboring Helmand, and scores of Taliban fighters and police officers have been killed.

But it was the bombing Sunday night in which civilians were killed that has turned the fighting into a political crisis for Karzai.

About 2,500 people have left a ring of five villages where the fighting has been raging this week and have arrived in trucks and tractors in Kandahar, said Rahilla Zafar of the International Organization for Migration. "The Taliban are taking over village communities, and the people are scared," she said.

Her office is closing down its operations for displaced people this week for lack of funds.

Fighting continued Wednesday in the Panjwai district, west of Kandahar, and coalition forces bombed the area again, the U.S.-led force in Kandahar said in a statement. Two suspected Taliban insurgents were detained.

Troops clashed with a "sizable force of Taliban, who retreated into a house and continued fighting," the statement said. "Artillery and air support was used to destroy the enemy. Sporadic fighting continued through the night. We have no assessment of Taliban killed or wounded."

The estimate of the civilian casualties Sunday continued to rise.

Abdul Qadar Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar, said at least 33 civilians were killed Sunday when U.S. planes bombed Tolokan. That is double the number originally reported.

According to villagers, 24 members of one family who lived in a large mud-walled compound died and eight were wounded in the first attack, Noorzai said. In a second bombing, of a religious school, nine civilians were killed and three wounded, he said.

Villagers said they had buried 35 Taliban fighters who were killed in the attack, he said.

The broader humanitarian crisis seems to be worsening.

The U.N. World Food Program warned Wednesday that 2.5 million Afghans would go hungry next winter if donors do not finance a program for communities suffering from poor harvests and drought. A lack of funds has forced the organization to cut some supplies, and it might have to close its winter program, ending food assistance to 450,000 schoolchildren and their families, said Anthony Banbury, the regional director for Asia.

He warned that failure to keep the program going could turn Afghans against the government and the international community, and push them into the arms of insurgents.

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