Afghan body counts 28 civilian deaths in Marjah
KABUL (AP) _ The Afghan human rights commission reported Wednesday that 28 civilians have been killed so far in NATO's offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, and urged pro-government forces to take greater care in distinguishing between noncombatants and militants.
The report came as Marines started a push to clear the last pockets of insurgents from Marjah in Helmand province. The 12th day of the offensive was relatively calm as the troops secured areas they've already taken and moved into position to tackle these final holdouts.
The Marjah assault is the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. Planners see it as key to taking on the insurgents in their southern heartland and turning around the war. NATO has stressed the importance of protecting civilians as part of their counterinsurgency campaign, boosted by extra U.S. forces sent by the Obama administration.
But military officials say that despite the care taken, the offensive has still been marred by civilian deaths, including a rocket attack last week that hit a house and killed 12 people.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said in a statement Wednesday that it had confirmed 28 civilians deaths in the Marjah fighting, based on witness reports. Thirteen children were among the dead. About 70 civilians have been wounded, 30 of them children, the commission said.
NATO has confirmed at least 16 civilian deaths, while outside observers have reported 19.
Thirteen NATO service members and two Afghan soldiers have been killed in the operation. Eighty NATO troops have been wounded, along with eight Afghans, said a NATO official, speaking anonymously because the official was not authorized to give out the information.
The Afghan commission said witnesses had told them that most of the civilian casualties came from coalition gunfire and rockets. Taliban fighters have been seen using women and children as human shields in the fighting _ stationing them in windows or on roofs of houses from which they fire, according to military commanders and Associated Press reporters on the ground.
"We do appreciate the fact that less airpower was used," commission spokesman Nader Nadery said. "Still, as the operation continues and the number rises, we get more and more concerned."
The commission asked for allied troops to exert greater care in distinguishing civilians from militants. Specifically, NATO forces should "make sure that more of an assessment is carried out, and to as much as possible, avoid using rockets," Nadery said. The commission's head is appointed by the president, but it operates independently.
The report also comes after a NATO airstrike Sunday in central Uruzgan province killed at least 21 civilians, according to Afghan officials. NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal has apologized to the Afghan people for the deaths on national television.
The military alliance reported Wednesday that fighting was tapering off in Marjah, but bombs and gunmen continued to pose a threat.
Nevertheless, some residents have started to return, and NATO said a market in the north of Nad Ali district _ of which Marjah is part _ has opened for the first time in 18 months.
In the north of Marjah, more than 100 Marines and their Afghan counterparts pushed into a neighborhood they say is the last significant pocket of insurgents in the town.
About 100 fighters are believed to have regrouped in the 28-square-mile (45-square-kilometer) area known as Kareze, according to commanders with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.
"The reports are that it's where a lot of the bad guys went," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, head of Lima Company.
In the past week, Marines have come under heavy fire each time they skirted the zone, and several well-trained snipers have been spotted in the densely protected area.
But troops did not meet the stiff resistance they expected _ not hearing a single shot as they moved into the area. Some Afghans who were fleeing the neighborhood told them that Taliban militants had told them to get out because they were planning a large attack. But others who stayed in their homes said they hadn't seen a militant in days.
"The last group to come by was three days ago," Shaiesta Khan said. "I don't know how many they were because they ordered me back into my house." The elderly man said he stayed behind to protect his home while his sons took the rest of the family to safety.
A Marine spokesman said Wednesday was the first day there were no gunbattles inside Marjah, though the previous two days had also been relatively calm.
"It's promising," Capt. Abe Sipe said. But he added that fighting will likely spike as the troops move into final pockets of fighters.
"There's still a fair bit of clearing," Sipe said. "We by no means think that this over."
Military officials have said the assault in Marjah is just the first push in a campaign that will move east into Kandahar province _ the Taliban's birthplace and where the hardline Islamist group still controls large swaths of territory.
McChrystal said Wednesday that NATO wants to avoid climatic battles and civilian casualties because otherwise Afghans living in other areas wouldn't want the troops to launch offensives where they live.
"They'd say 'Please don't liberate us,"' McChrystal said at a lunch with Afghan university students participating in a leadership program.
The United Nations on Wednesday called on all sides to do their utmost to protect children from the conflict.
The U.N. says that while many more civilians are killed by militant bombs or attacks, new figures indicate that 131 children died in international airstrikes in 2009 _ slightly more than the 128 killed by militants, including those used as suicide bombers.
Another 22 children were killed in night raids by coalition forces, while 38 children were killed by undetermined perpetrators, the U.N. said.
"If there is going to be war, then we would like the military on all sides to take measures to protect children," Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told reporters in Kabul.
She added, however, that she is encouraged by stricter rules of engagement adopted in recent months by NATO and hopes that will mean fewer children dying in 2010.
Underscoring the threat militants pose, two men on a motorbike gunned down a provincial official in neighboring Kandahar province as he walked to work Wednesday in the provincial capital, police said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Dozens of prominent politicians and religious leaders with ties to the Western-backed government have been killed in drive-by shootings or bombings in recent years, many in Kandahar city. Mohammad Shah Farooqi had held his post with the Information and Culture Ministry for about eight years and was not known to have stirred up controversy.