Saturday, September 5, 2009

NATO seeks to calm Afghans after deadly air strike

GERMANY'S Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung has sought to justify a NATO air strike in Afghanistan that left up to 90 people dead, triggering widespread concern over civilian casualties.

NATO officers met air strike victims and their families in Afghanistan on Saturday and their commander took to the TV airwaves in a bid to cool anger over an incident that undermines efforts to win hearts and minds. Afghan officials say scores of people were killed, many of them civilians, when a U.S. F-15 fighter jet called in by German troops struck two hijacked fuel trucks before dawn on Friday. NATO hopes to avert a backlash over the incident, which comes two months after the new U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, ordered new procedures that require extra precautions to protect civilians before troops can open fire.

In an unprecedented televised address to the Afghan people, McChrystal said the attack was launched against what troops thought was a Taliban target. He promised to make the outcome of an investigation public. "As Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people," he said in the taped address, released in versions dubbed into the two official languages, Dari and Pashtu.

"I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously." At the central hospital in the city of Kunduz, Shaifullah, a boy of 6 or 7 with an arm and a leg bandaged from severe burns, lay in a tiny, foul-smelling hospital room, crammed with beds and swarming with flies. "I went to get the fuel with everybody else, and then the bombs fell on us," the boy told a delegation led by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Greg Smith, head of public affairs for the 103,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

American and German officers nodded, some taking notes. The attack took place in Kunduz, a northern province that had been largely quiet since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, but has recently seen a sudden upsurge in attacks, with fighters seizing control of remote areas. The area is patrolled by NATO's 4,000-strong German contingent, who are banned by Berlin from operating in combat zones in other parts of the country. Later on Saturday morning, a bomb hit a German convoy near the city, yet another sign of mounting Taliban violence in the area. A Reuters reporting team saw damaged vehicles. Germany said a suicide bomber had wounded four German soldiers in the strike.

GERMAN ELECTION DEBATE

Germany has confirmed that a German commander approved the air raid and the incident could intensify a debate about the war, which is unpopular back home. Germany holds a general election in three weeks and both major political parties are defending the German role in the war to a sceptical public. NATO says its targets in the raid were Taliban fighters who had hijacked the fuel trucks, but has acknowledged that some of the victims being treated in hospital are civilians.

Smith, sent to the area on a fact-finding mission by McChrystal, shook hands with wounded victims and relatives. "We regret the loss of life. We express condolences to all members of your village," he said to one relative. Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar blamed the local villagers for aiding Taliban insurgents and said the villagers along with the Taliban were responsible for the loss of lives.

"Villagers paid a price for helping and sheltering the insurgents," Omar told Reuters on Saturday. He said the death toll had not been finalised, and the probe was continuing. The NATO strike was condemned by several European officials at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Stockholm. Asked what the bloc could do to improve the situation, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters: "It is difficult to say, but mainly to work with Afghan people and not to bomb them, not only to bomb them."

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