US military blamed for Afghan civilian deaths

The actions of US troops in Afghanistan have sparked criticism, demonstrations, and calls for investigations after at least 17 civilians were killed in two separate incidents, and soldiers reportedly then deleted journalists' photos and video footage of the aftermath of one of the attacks.

The BBC reports that at least eight civilians were killed by gunfire Sunday after a suicide bomber targeted a US convoy on road from Jalalabad to Pakistan in what US forces described as a "complex ambush." US military spokesman Maj. William Mitchell said that incoming fire on US troops from gunmen in the area "was wholly or partly responsible for the civilian casualties."

However, The Associated Press reports that witnesses at the scene said most of the bullets that lead to the casualties were from American forces. The incidents prompted angry demonstrations by hundreds of Afghans who shouted "Death to America! Death to [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai!"

Nine witnesses, including five Afghans recuperating from bullet wounds in the hospital, told The Associated Press that U.S. forces fired indiscriminately along at least a six-mile stretch of one of eastern Afghanistan's busiest highways - a route often filled not only with cars and trucks but Afghans on foot and bicycles.

According to the AP, Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top US military spokesman in Afghanistan, maintained that "it's not entirely clear right now" whether the civilians were casualties of enemy fire, although he didn't deny that they may have been shot by "coalition forces."

CNN reports that Zmarai Bashiri, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said that after the suicide bomb attack, US forces became "emotional" and started firing at Afghans in the area "because they feared another bomb attack." President Karzai "strongly condemned the incident" and has ordered an investigation, Reuters reports.

The AP also reports that at least one US soldier deleted video footage and photos taken by Afghan journalists covering the aftermath of the suicide bombing. A freelance photographer working for AP and an AP Television News cameraman, who arrived a half hour after the suicide bombing, were capturing images of three bodies inside a vehicle when they were approached by troops who accused them of not having permission to be there, then erased their work. Other local Afghan TV reporters at the bombing site were threatened by US troops and had their footage deleted as well, according to the AP.

Khanwali Kamran, a reporter for the Afghan channel Ariana Television, was in a small group of journalists working alongside [AP photographer Rahmat] Gul. Kamran said the American soldiers also deleted his footage.

"They warned me that if it is aired ... then, 'You will face problems,"' Kamran said.

Taqiullah Taqi, a reporter for Afghanistan's largest television station, Tolo TV, said Americans were using abusive language.

"According to the translator, they said, 'Delete them, or we will delete you,"' Taqi said.

Agence France-Presse reports that Major Mitchell defended the actions of the soldiers in deleting the footage, saying that the practice was allowed in "extreme circumstances."

The journalists had gone beyond a security perimetre and had been asked to remove their images to "protect the integrity of the investigation," he said, adding that the scene may have been altered before they arrived.

The concern had been that the "photographers would not accurately represent what the scene looked like immediately after the ambush," Mitchell said.

In a statement, press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called for an investigation into "the acts of censorship by the US Army" and asked "if the US soldiers had nothing to hide why have they done everything to prevent the press from covering this blunder?"

Al Jazeera, however, reports that it has obtained footage showing "local people in shock, treating the wounded and pulling bodies from the debris left by the shooting." Al Jazeera also reports that witnesses said the suicide bomber acted alone in attacking the US troops, and that the troops simply panicked, firing at anything that moved after the bomb exploded. One witness told Al Jazeera: "There were no gunmen, this is a complete lie."

In the second deadly incident for Afghan civilians on Sunday, The New York Times reports that nine members of a family were killed after a US-led airstrike bombed a compound thought to be holding militants possibly tied to the Taliban. US and Afghan troops stationed at a NATO base north of the Afghan captial of Kabul came under rocket fire Sunday night, and saw two armed men enter the compound before ordering the airstrike.

"Coalition forces observed two men with AK-47s leaving the scene of the rocket attack and entering the compound," Lt. Col. David Accetta, a military spokesman, said in the statement. "These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces."

"We did this in self-defense," said Gen. Muhammad Eiwaz Masloom, the police chief of Kapisa Province, whose men work beside Americans at the base. "The enemy of Afghanistan is trying to use different tactics to destroy the peace and stability in our area, especially in the districts of Tagab and Nejarab, and they have repeatedly attacked our bases."

He said that members of the Islamic Party, which is led by the renegade mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Taliban supporters were active in the area.

However the AP reports that such tactics by US-led coalition troops may do more harm than good in the battle against the Taliban.

"These incidents will make people unhappy and upset with the international forces as well as the government of Afghanistan," said Zalmai Mujadedi, head of a parliamentary committee on domestic security. "The incidents in Nangarhar and Kapisa will make the people's confidence in the Afghan and international security forces even lower than before."

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said coalition forces will always respond in self-defense when fired upon: "It is often the enemy that is putting innocent peoples' lives in danger by where they're conducting these attacks on our forces."

Civilian deaths "encourage people toward the Taliban and give the Taliban a chance to turn the situation to their advantage," said Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, an Afghan political analyst and spokesman for the non-governmental Freedom of Expression Association.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the civilian deaths that occured in both the highway shootings and the compound bombing underscore the problems that US forces face when combating a guerrilla foe.

Because suicide attacks against allied convoys are so commonplace, troops sometimes react to even the threat of an attack with overwhelming force. Scores of Afghan motorists have been shot when they ventured too close to convoys and ignored or did not understand warnings to move away.

Use of "close air support," or precision bombardment, has also become a crucial component of the allies' battlefield strategy. But allied troops under fire in remote areas sometimes unwittingly call in airstrikes against an area where insurgents have taken cover among civilians -- or have come and gone, leaving innocent villagers behind in the path of bombs.

Human Rights Watch has echoed Mr. Karzai's call for an investigation into the civilian shooting deaths and called for better precautions to ensure the prevention of further civilian deaths, even when insurgents are hiding among them. "The fact that the insurgents violate the laws of war doesn't absolve the US and its allies of the need to observe them," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the group. The AP notes there have been at least thirteen separate incidents in which Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces since the US-led invasion of the country in the month following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the US military is trying to control information related to the highway shooting deaths by deleting journalists' footage. The AP has said it will lodge a protest with the US military over the deleted images and video.

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