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American War Crimes: Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes

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  • Zafar Khan
    Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes By CARLOTTA GALL and TAIMOOR SHAH Published: May 14, 2009
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2009
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      Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes
      By CARLOTTA GALL and TAIMOOR SHAH
      Published: May 14, 2009

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/world/asia/15farah.html

      FARAH, Afghanistan — The number of civilians killed by the American airstrikes in Farah Province last week may never be fully known. But villagers, including two girls recovering from burn wounds, described devastation that officials and human rights workers are calling the worst episode of civilian casualties in eight years of war in Afghanistan.

      “We were very nervous and afraid and my mother said, ‘Come quickly, we will go somewhere and we will be safe,’ ” said Tillah, 12, recounting from a hospital bed how women and children fled the bombing by taking refuge in a large compound, which was then hit.

      The bombs were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies. Several villagers said that they could not distinguish all of the dead and that they never found some of their relatives.

      Government officials have accepted handwritten lists compiled by the villagers of 147 dead civilians. An independent Afghan human rights group said it had accounts from interviews of 117 dead. American officials say that even 100 is an exaggeration but have yet to issue their own count.

      The calamity in the village of Granai, some 18 miles from here, illustrates in the grimmest terms the test for the Obama administration as it deploys more than 20,000 additional troops here and appoints a new commander, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in search of a fresh approach to combat the tenacious Taliban insurgency.

      It is bombings like this one that have turned many Afghans against the American-backed government and the foreign military presence. The events in Granai have raised sharp questions once again about the appropriateness and effectiveness of aerial bombardment in a guerrilla war in which the insurgents deliberately blend into the civilian population to fight and flee.

      Taliban insurgents are well aware of the weakness and are making the most of it, American and Afghan officials say. Farah, a vast province in the west, contains only a smattering of foreign special forces and trainers who work among Afghan police and army units. Exploiting the thin spread of forces, the insurgents sought to seize control of Granai and provoke a fierce battle over the heads of the civilian population, Afghan and American officials say.

      After hours of fighting and taking a number of casualties, the American forces called in their heaviest weapon, airstrikes, on at least three targets in the village.

      The rapid mass burial of the victims and the continuing presence of insurgents in the area have hampered investigations. Journalists were advised against visiting Granai. Villagers were interviewed here in Farah, the provincial capital, where they came to collect compensation payments, and in the neighboring province of Herat, where some were taken for treatment.

      Much of the villagers’ descriptions matched accounts given by the United States military spokesman, Col. Greg Julian, and the provincial police chief, Col. Abdul Ghafar Watandar. But they differed on one important point: whether the Taliban had already left Granai before the bombing began.

      There was particular anger among the villagers that the bombing came after, they say, the Taliban had already left at dusk, and the fighting had subsided, so much so that men had gone to evening prayers at 7 p.m. and returned and were sitting down with their families for dinner.

      The police chief said that sporadic fighting continued into the night and that the Taliban were probably in the village until 1 a.m.

      Whatever the case, American planes bombed after 8 p.m. in several waves when most of the villagers thought the fighting was over; and whatever the actual number of casualties, it is clear from the villagers’ accounts that dozens of women and children were killed after taking cover.

      One group went to a spacious compound owned by a man named Said Naeem, on the north side of the village, where the two girls were wounded. Only one woman and six children in the compound survived, one of their fathers said.

      Another group gathered in the house of the village imam, or religious leader, Mullah Manan. That, too, was bombed, causing an equally large number of casualties, villagers said. Colonel Julian, the American military spokesman, said that the airstrikes hit houses from which the Taliban were firing. The enormous explosions left such devastation that villagers struggled to describe it. “There was someone’s legs, someone’s shoulders, someone’s hands,” said Said Jamal, an old white-bearded man with rheumy eyes, who lost two sons and a daughter. “The dead were so many.”

      A joint government and United States military delegation visited Granai last week but came back sharply divided in their conclusions. The Afghan government said that 140 civilians were killed and 25 wounded, and that 12 houses were destroyed.

      The United States military said the Afghan numbers were far too high. This week, a senior military investigator, Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III of the United States Army, arrived to conduct an in-depth inquiry for the region’s overall military commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

      An independent Afghan organization, Afghanistan Rights Monitor, said Wednesday that at least 117 civilians were killed — including 26 women and 61 children — drawing on interviews with 21 villagers and relatives of the dead. The group criticized both the Taliban for fighting among civilians, and the United States military for using excessive force.

      The police chief, Colonel Watandar, confirmed much of the villagers’ accounts of the fighting. A large group of Taliban fighters, numbering about 400, they estimated, entered the village and took up positions at dawn on May 4. By midmorning, the Taliban began attacks on police posts on the main road, just yards from the village, they said.

      The fighting raged all day. The police called in more police officers, Afghan Army units and an American quick reaction force from the town of Farah as reinforcements.

      By midafternoon, the exchanges escalated sharply and moved deeper into the village. Taliban fighters were firing from the houses, and at one point a Marine unit called in airstrikes to allow Marines to go forward and rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, said Colonel Julian, the United States military spokesman. After that, Taliban fire dropped significantly, he said.

      A villager named Multan said that one house along the southern edge of the village was hit by a bomb and that one Taliban fighter was killed there. But villagers did not report any civilian casualties until the American planes bombed that night.

      Tillah, the 12-year-old girl, whose face bears the scars of a scorching blast, still twisted in pain from the burning in her leg at the provincial hospital in Herat, where she and other survivors were taken to a special burn unit. Her two sisters, Freshta, 5, and Nuria, 7, were barely visible under the bandages swathing their heads and limbs.

      The three girls were visiting their aunt’s house with their mother when a plane bombed the nearby mosque, around 8 p.m., Tillah said. That is when they fled to Said Naeem’s seven-room home.

      “When we reached there we felt safe and I fell asleep,” Tillah said. She said she heard the buzzing noise of a plane, but then only remembers coming to when someone pulled her from the rubble the next morning.

      A second girl, Nazo, 9, beside her in another hospital bed, said she saw two red flashes in the courtyard that kicked up dust seconds before the explosion.

      “I heard a loud explosion and the compound was burning and the roof fell in,” she said. Seven members of the family with her died, and four were wounded, her father, Said Malham, said.

      “Why do they target the Taliban inside the village?” he asked wearily. “Why don’t they bomb them when they are outside the village?”

      “The foreigners are guilty,” he continued. “Why don’t they bomb their targets, but instead they come and bomb our houses?”
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      Rumsfeld's renegade unit blamed for Afghan deaths

      Special Forces group implicated in three incidents that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians / MarSOC was set up by former defence secretary despite opposition from within the Marine Corps

      By Jerome Starkey in Kabul
      Saturday, 16 May 2009

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/rumsfelds-renegade-unit-blamed-for-afghan-deaths-1685704.html

      A single American Special Forces group was behind at least three of Afghanistan's worst civilian casualty incidents, The Independent has learnt, raising fundamental questions about their ongoing role in the conflict.

      Troops from the US Marines Corps' Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Boluk, in Farah, last week – believed to have killed more than 140 men, women and children – as well as two other incidents in 2007 and 2008. News of MarSOC's involvement in the three incidents comes just days after a Special Forces expert, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, was named to take over as the top commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. His surprise appointment has prompted speculation that commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban.

      MarSOC was created three years ago on the express orders of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary at the time, despite opposition from within the Marine Corps and the wider Special Forces community. An article in the Marine Corps Times described the MarSOC troops as "cowboys" who brought shame on the corps.

      The first controversial incident involving the unit happened just three weeks into its first deployment to Afghanistan on 4 March 2007. Speeding away from a suicide bomb attack close to the Pakistan border, around 120 men from Fox Company opened fire on civilians near Jalalabad, in Nangahar province. The Marines said they were shot at after the explosion; eyewitnesses said the Americans fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and civilian cars, killing at least 19 people.

      The US Army commander in Nangahar at the time, Colonel John Nicholson, said he was "deeply ashamed" and described the incident as "a stain on our honour". The Marines' tour was cut short after a second incident on 9 March in which they allegedly rolled a car and fired on traffic again, and they were flown out of Afghanistan a few weeks later.

      The top Special Operations officer at US Central Command, Army Major General Frank Kearney, refuted MarSOC's claims that they had been shot at. "We found no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at them," he said, referring to ammunition casings. "We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians."

      At the military hearings on the incident, which were held back in the US, soldiers said the MarSOC troops, who called themselves Taskforce Violence, were gung-ho and hungry to prove themselves in battle. The inquiry also heard testimony suggesting there were tensions between the Marine unit and its US Army counterparts in Nangahar province.

      Col Nicholson told the court the unit would routinely stray into areas under his control without telling him, ignoring usual military courtesies. "There had been potentially 25 operations in my area of operations that I, as a commander, was not aware of," he said. Asked about the moment he was told of the March shootout, he added: "My initial reaction was, 'What are they doing out there?' " The three-week military inquiry ultimately spared the Marine unit from criminal charges.

      There are around 2,500 troops in MarSOC. Around half are frontline troops, the rest are support and maintenance. Originally the unit was used to plug gaps in the Special Forces world and it has operated in more than 16 countries since being set up by Mr Rumsfeld in 2006. However, in a recent interview, its commanding officer, Major General Mastin Robeson, revealed he has been ordered to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today MarSOC answers to the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command, based in Kabul. That in turn answers to US Forces Afghanistan, which is led by the top US commander, David McKiernan, who is soon to be replaced by General McChrystal.

      In August last year, a 20-man MarSOC unit, fighting alongside Afghan commandos, directed fire from unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a cannon-armed Spectre gunship into compounds in Azizabad, in Herat province, leaving more than 90 people dead – many of them children.

      And just last week, MarSOC troops called in the Bala Baluk air strikes to rescue an Afghan police patrol that had been ambushed in countryside in Farah province. US officials said two F18 fighter jets and a B1 bomber had swooped because men on the ground were overwhelmed. But villagers said the most devastating bombs were dropped on compounds some distance from the fighting, long after the battle was over, and when Taliban forces were retreating. Afghan officials said up to 147 people were killed, including more than 90 women and children.

      US officials dispute the number of people killed in each of the MarSOC incidents, which sparked angry public demonstrations and condemnation from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

      The spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Greg Julian, denied reports that commanders have lost confidence in the Marine unit. "MarSOC was involved in these incidents, but it's not all the same guys. They get the lessons passed on from all of the rotations and experiences. Yet, they are human," he said. "They have the same rules of engagement that everyone has."

      The so-called "tactical directive" was introduced last September in the wake of the international uproar that followed the Azizabad deaths. It requires troops to exercise "proportionality, restraint, and utmost discrimination" when calling in air strikes. Claims that bombs were dropped in last week's incident in Farah long after the fighting finished suggest those directives may not have been followed by MarSOC.

      Meanwhile, Afghan MPs have called for new laws to regulate the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and limit use of air strikes, house searches and Special Forces operations. Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, one of the chief proponents of the planned legislation, said: "Special Forces, all forces, should be regulated by the law. If they won't accept that we have to ask bigger questions about what they are doing here."
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      Phosphorus claim after fatal air strikes in Afghanist
      Jon Boone in Kabul The Guardian, Monday 11 May 2009

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/10/afghanistan-attacks-phosphorus-investigation


      Afghanistan's leading human rights ­organisation is investigating claims that white phosphorus was used during a deadly battle between US forces and the Taliban last week in which scores of civilians may have died.

      Nader Nadery, a senior officer at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the organisation was concerned that the chemical, which can cause severe burns, might have been used in the firefight in Bala Baluk, a district in the western province of Farah.

      Dr Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of an internationally funded burns hospital in Herat, said villagers taken to hospital after the incident had "highly unusual burns" on their hands and feet that he had not seen before. "We cannot be 100% sure what type of chemical it was and we do not have the equipment here to find out. One of the women who came here told us that 22 members of her family were totally burned. She said a bomb distributed white power that caught fire and then set people's clothes alight."

      US forces in Afghanistan denied they had used the chemical, and have also said claims that up to 147 civilians were killed were grossly exaggerated.

      As with previous such tragedies, both sides have made wildly different claims, with the Taliban seeking to exploit ­popular fury and US officials attempting to limit the damage and blame the Taliban for allegedly using civilians as human shields.But members of the human rights department at the UN mission in Afghanistan have been appalled by witness testimony from people in the village, according to one official in Kabul who talked anonymously to the Guardian.

      He said bombs were dropped after militants had quit the battlefield, which appeared to be backed up by the US air force's own daily report, which is published online. "The stories that are emerging are quite frankly horrifying," the official said. "It is quite apparent that the large bulk of casualties were called in after the initial fighting had subsided and both the troops and the Taliban had withdrawn.

      "Local villagers went to the mosque to pray for peace. Shortly after evening prayers the air strikes were called in, and they continued for a couple of hours whilst the villagers were frantically calling the local governor to get him to call off the air strikes."

      He said that women and children hid inside their homes while their men went on to the roofs with guns. US forces say these men were militants, but the UN official said they were simply villagers and "it is totally normal for them to have guns". Also contested is an incident immediately after the battle when people from the village took piles of corpses to the governor's compound in the provincial capital.

      The UN official said their willingness to ignore the Islamic custom of organising burial within 24 hours of death showed the level of anger. A statement by US forces said insurgents forced tribal elders to parade the corpses through neighbouring villages to "incite outrage".

      It said that a joint US-Afghan investigation team confirmed that "a number of civilians were killed in the course of the fighting but is unable to determine with certainty which of those causalities were Taliban fighters and which were non-combatants". Last week Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, called for all air strikes in villages to be stopped, a view privately backed by many in the UN. Yesterday Barack Obama's national security adviser, Gen James Jones, ruled out such a change in policy, saying "we can't fight with one hand tied behind our back".
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      Nine killed is US missile strike in Pakistan
      By Associated Press
      Saturday, 9 May 2009

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/nine-killed-is-us-missile-strike-in-pakistan-1681973.html

      Nine people were killed in a suspected US missile strike on a militant stronghold near the Afghan border today, Pakistani officials said.

      And doctors rushed to treat an influx of wounded civilians as thousands of troops backed by bomb-dropping warplanes sought to purge Taliban militants from a north-western valley.


      It was not immediately clear who the victims of the suspected US strike were.


      Pakistan's leaders, encouraged by the US, launched a full-scale offensive in the Swat Valley this week to halt the spread of Taliban control in districts within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.


      But the fighting has caused hundreds of thousands of terrified residents to flee, adding a humanitarian emergency to the nuclear-armed nation's security, economic and political problems.


      Witness accounts indicated that scores of civilians have already been killed or injured in the escalating clashes in Swat and the neighbouring Buner and Lower Dir districts.


      Today, medics at the hospital in Swat's main town, Mingora, were at full stretch to deal with dozens of residents caught up in the fighting.


      Riaz Khan, a 36-year-old schoolteacher, his wife and two daughters occupied four of the beds, the shrapnel wounds on their arms and legs covered by bandages.


      Mr Khan said his other two daughters were killed three days earlier when a mortar shell hit their home near Mingora.


      "We buried our daughters on Thursday when the army relaxed the curfew," he told an Associated Press reporter. "We reached the hospital only with great difficulty."


      Nisar Khan, one of only three doctors left at the hospital, said there were about 25 war-wounded among the 100 patients.


      The unidentified bodies of three women and a man apparently killed in the fighting were also being kept there, even though the hospital had no morgue, he said.


      Pakistan's army is fighting to wrest Swat and neighbouring districts from militants who dominate the adjoining tribal belt along the Afghan frontier, where US officials believe al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is holed up.


      Taliban militants seized much of the area under a peace deal, even after the government agreed to their main demand to impose Islamic law in the region.


      US officials likened the deal to a surrender. Pakistani leaders said the agreement's collapse had opened the eyes of ordinary citizens to the extremist threat.


      The army formally launched its offensive on Thursday, when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the government would wipe out groups trying to "take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint".


      The military said yesterday that more than 140 militants and two soldiers had been killed in Swat in the last 24 hours - roughly doubling the number of casualties reported so far.


      Today, an AP reporter saw jet fighters flying over Mingora and later heard explosions from further up the valley. Details of the fighting were not available.


      The army said it was reinforcing the 12,000 to 15,000 troops in Swat as they take on 4,000 to 5,000 militants, including small numbers of foreigners and hardened fighters from the South Waziristan border region.


      South Waziristan has been the scene of numerous suspected American missile attacks in recent months, including today's strike in the Tabai area.


      Two intelligence officials said several missiles struck a disused hospital building known to be frequented by foreign militants and a tunnel in a nearby mountain, killing a total of nine militants.


      The officials said field agents were still trying to determine the nationalities and names of the victims.


      Pakistani leaders oppose the strikes, apparently carried out by unmanned CIA aircraft, complaining that they feed anti-American sentiment and help militants to recruit new fighters. Washington says the attacks have killed a string of al Qaida and Taliban leaders without causing mass civilian casualties.
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      Robert Fisk: Civilians pay price of war from above
      Thursday, 7 May 2009

      http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-civilians-pay-price-of--war-from-above-1680408.html

      Of course there will be an inquiry. And in the meantime, we shall be told that all the dead Afghan civilians were being used as "human shields" by the Taliban and we shall say that we "deeply regret" innocent lives that were lost. But we shall say that it's all the fault of the terrorists, not our heroic pilots and the US Marine special forces who were target spotting around Bala Baluk and Ganjabad.

      When the Americans destroy Iraqi homes, there is an inquiry. And oh how the Israelis love inquiries (though they rarely reveal anything). It's the history of the modern Middle East. We are always right and when we are not, we (sometimes) apologise and then we blame it all on the "terrorists". Yes, we know the throat-cutters and beheaders and suicide bombers are quite prepared to slaughter the innocent.

      But it was a sign of just how terrible the Afghan slaughter was that the powerless President Hamid Karzai sounded like a beacon of goodness yesterday appealing for "a higher platform of morality" in waging war, that we should conduct war as "better human beings".

      And of course, the reason is quite simple. We live, they die. We don't risk our brave lads on the ground – not for civilians. Not for anything. Fire phosphorus shells into Fallujah. Fire tank shells into Najaf. We know we kill the innocent. Israel does exactly the same. It said the same after its allies massacred 1,700 at the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in 1982 and in the deaths of more than a thousand civilians in Lebanon in 2006 and after the death of more than a thousand Palestinians in Gaza this year.

      And if we kill some gunmen at the same time – "terrorists", of course – then it is the same old "human shield" tactic and ultimately the "terrorists" are to blame. Our military tactics are now fully aligned with Israel.

      The reality is that international law forbids armies from shooting wildly in crowded tenements and bombing wildly into villages – even when enemy forces are present – but that went by the board in our 1991 bombing of Iraq and in Bosnia and in Nato's Serbia war and in our 2001 Afghan adventure and in 2003 in Iraq. Let's have that inquiry. And "human shields". And terror, terror, terror. Something else I notice. Innocent or "terrorists", civilians or Taliban, always it is the Muslims who are to blame.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      US ex-soldier convicted of Iraq rape and killi

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-exsoldier-convicted-of-iraq-rape-and-killings-1681208.html

      A federal jury convicted a former soldier of raping and fatally shooting a 14-year-old girl after killing her parents and younger sister while he was serving in Iraq.

      Pfc. Steven Dale Green faces a possible death sentence when the penalty phase of his trial opens Monday in the unusual case of a crime in a war zone being prosecuted in civilian court.

      Green, 24, of Midland, Texas, was being tried in federal court because he had been discharged from the Army for a personality disorder before he was charged with the Iraq crimes. Green stared straight ahead as the verdict was read yesterday in US District Court in western Kentucky.

      Defence attorney Darren Wolff, speaking afterward, said the defence never denied Green's involvement.

      "Is this verdict a surprise to us? No. The goal has always been to save our client's life," Wolff said. "And, now we're going to go to the most important phase, which is the sentencing phase and we're going to accomplish that goal."

      The lead prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Marisa Ford, declined comment.

      The trial began April 27, and jurors deliberated for more than 10 hours beginning Wednesday before finding Green guilty. Jurors didn't look at Green as they entered the courtroom before the verdict was read.

      Green's defense team had asked them to consider the "context" of war, saying soldiers in Green's unit of the 101st Airborne Division lacked leadership. Defense attorneys also said the Army missed signs that Green was struggling after the loss of friends in combat and that it offered little help to him and other soldiers in his unit.

      The prosecution rested six days into the trial after presenting witnesses who said Green confessed to the crimes and others who put him at the home of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, heard him shoot her family and saw him rape and shoot the girl.

      During opening arguments, Assistant US Attorney Brian Skaret said Green talked frequently of wanting to kill Iraqis, but when pressed, would tell people he wasn't serious. In the weeks before the attack on the family, several soldiers from Green's unit were killed in combat.

      In closing arguments, Ford said the March 12, 2006, crime was planned and premeditated. "This was a crime that was committed in cold blood," she said.

      Prosecutors told jurors that the plot against the family was hatched among Green and fellow soldiers who were playing cards and drinking whiskey at a checkpoint. Talk turned to having sex with Iraqi women, when one soldier mentioned the al-Janabi family, who lived nearby, Skaret said.

      Three other soldiers are serving time in military prison for their roles in the attack, and testified against Green at his trial.

      Green's father, John Green, declined to comment on the verdict. But he told The Associated Press that he may testify during the penalty phase of the trial.
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      '120 die' as US bombs village

      Afghan outrage after strike targeting Taliban fighters hits women and children

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/120-die-as-us-bombs-village-1680407.html

      A misdirected US air strike has killed as many as 120 Afghans, including dozens of women and children. The attack is the deadliest such bombing involving civilian casualties so far in the eight years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.


      Families in two villages in Farah province in western Afghanistan were digging for bodies in the ruins of their mudbrick houses yesterday. "There were women and children who were killed," said Jessica Barry, a Red Cross spokeswoman. "It seemed they were trying to shelter in houses when they were hit." Survivors said the number of dead would almost certainly to rise as the search for bodies continued.

      The killing of so many Afghan civilians by US aircraft is likely to infuriate Afghans and lead to an increase in support for the Taliban in the bombed area. President Hamid Karzai, who was meeting President Barack Obama in Washington yesterday, sent a joint US-Afghan delegation to investigate the incident. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, standing next to Mr Karzai, voiced her "deep regret".

      US Marine Special Forces supporting the Afghan army apparently called in the air strike on Tuesday on two villages in Bala Baluk district after heavy fighting with the Taliban. Accounts by Afghans of high civilian casualties are often denied or dismissed by US officials. But a team from the Red Cross visited the scene of this attack. "There were bodies, graves, there were people burying bodies when we were there," said Ms Barry. She said a first aid worker for Afghanistan's Red Crescent died with 13 members of his family. "Dozens of dead bodies were seen in the two locations we went to." Rohul Amin, the provincial governor of Farah, told The Independent that "the dead numbered over 100". Villagers brought 30 bodies, including women and children, in a truck to Mr Amin in Farah City to prove it had happened.

      The Afghan government has made increasingly angry denunciations of the US Air Force for using its massive firepower without regard for ordinary Afghans. Wedding parties have been a frequent target of US bombers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, presumably because they are mistaken for gatherings of militants.

      The US air strike on Bala Baluk appears to have been deadlier for civilians than any similar event since the first US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. The government has asked villagers not to bury the dead until investigators arrive today.

      Previously the worst such incident was a US strike on Azizabad in August 2008 when the US originally claimed that no civilians were killed. Afghan and UN investigators concluded that 90 Afghans had been killed. A high-level American inquiry later admitted that 33 civilians had been killed. Opinion polls in Afghanistan show that backing for the Taliban soars in provinces affected after bombing or shelling kills innocent people.

      The air strikes were preceded by two days of fighting between Afghan government forces supported by the US and dozens of Taliban fighters. Farah is a poor province whose people are mostly farmers and where the Taliban has been very active. The provincial police chief, Abdul Gaffar, said three police officers and 25 Taliban were killed in fighting near the village of Ganjabad in Bala Baluk district.

      Local residents later told Afghan officials that they put their children, women and elderly men in walled compounds in the village of Gerani, which is three miles from the scene of the fighting and where they thought they would be safe. It was these compounds which were then attacked from the air and most of the people sheltering inside were killed.

      Despite US denials or claims that a high death toll among civilians is Taliban propaganda, the US military should have very immediate access to eyewitnesses to air strikes. This is because the most severely injured are often taken to American medical facilities at US military bases. It is not known if this happened at Bala Baluk.

      After the Azizabad killings last year, the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan were meant to have introduced more stringent rules to safeguard civilians from their strikes. The top US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, issued a directive ordering commanders to consider not pursuing Taliban fighters into populated areas. The US also pledged to investigate bombing incidents alongside Afghan investigators.

      Afghan air strikes: The toll mounts

      552 Civilians killed in air strikes in 2008.

      17 per cent Proportion of US drone attacks to hit targets since January 2006.

      701 Killed in drone attacks in three years.

      14 Al-Qa'ida leaders in that number.

      4.5 million dollars The estimated cost of a single Predator drone.
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