US to Begin New Inquiry into Afghan Civilian Deaths

The US military has reopened an investigation into air strikes that Afghan and UN teams say killed more than 90 civilians after new video evidence emerged, officials said Monday.

US General David McKiernan, the most senior US general in Afghanistan, has asked for another inquiry into US-led coalition air strikes in which Afghan UN teams say 90 civilians, most of them children, were killed.(AFP/File/Shah Marai)

The US-led coalition has steadfastly rejected the civilian tolls from the August 22 strikes on the village of Azizabad in the western province of Herat, saying only five to seven civilians died along with 30-35 Taliban rebels.

But it had agreed to a review on the request of General David McKiernan, the most senior US officer in Afghanistan, the US Central Command -- which is responsible for the region -- said in a statement received by AFP Monday.

The Florida-based command "will appoint a senior US military officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan National Army (ANA) and US Forces operation," said the statement forwarded by the US military here.

"This review will consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation," it said.

If the toll of 90 is confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest such incidents since the United States led troops into Afghanistan seven years ago to remove the Taliban from government and round up extremist militants.

McKiernan said in a statement late Sunday there was "emerging evidence" about the incident.

In light of this, "I feel it is prudent to request that US Central Command send a general officer to review the US investigation and its findings with respect to the new evidence," he said.

McKiernan heads the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which works alongside the US-led coalition, but he is the most senior US commander in Afghanistan.

He was referring to images captured on mobile telephone by one of the residents of the village, ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette told AFP.

Images received and seen by AFP -- apparently the same ones referred to by Blanchette -- show at least 30 bodies packed into a mosque and covered with blankets.

Some of the covers are lifted to show several children, some only toddlers, and at least one with the back of its skull blown off.

An Afghan investigation, appointed by President Hamid Karzai, said the dead included around 50 children aged under 15 years, 19 women and some men.

The team also said there was video evidence which it sent to its intelligence services.

A separate United Nations investigation came up with a similar conclusion but US officials reportedly cast doubt on the allegations citing lack of physical evidence.

The US-led coalition has said it called in the strikes after a joint patrol came under attack. It says the killed civilians  were relatives of an important Taliban commander, who was among the dead.

Afghan locals say the strikes hit people gathered overnight ahead of a ceremony to mark the death of an important local figure, and seven to eight houses were destroyed.

The incident prompted Karzai to sack two senior Afghan army officers and his government to demand a review of the regulations governing the presence of international troops in Afghanistan.

New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch warned in a report released Monday that civilian deaths from international air strikes were creating a public backlash against the government and its allies.

Such killings had nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007 with at least 119 in the first seven months of this year, it said.

"Mistakes by the US and NATO have dramatically decreased public support for the Afghan government and the presence of international forces providing security to Afghans," HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement accompanying the report.

"Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taliban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan," he added.

Source: AFP

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