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04 Sep 2009 09:26
Nato forces were investigating whether they killed scores of Afghan civilians on Friday after carrying out an air strike against two hijacked fuel tankers and causing a big explosion.
The incident in the northern province of Kunduz could reignite outrage against foreign troops, two months after the new commander of United States and Afghan forces in the country announced measures to reduce civilian casualties, which he said were undermining the war effort.
Lieutenant-Commander Christine Sidenstricker, press officer for the US and Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), said Afghan authorities had reported two fuel trucks hijacked, and Nato air craft spotted them on a river bank.
“After observing that only insurgents were in the area, the local Isaf commander ordered air strikes which destroyed the fuel trucks and killed a large number of insurgents,” she said.
“The strike was against insurgents. That’s who we believe was killed.
But we are absolutely investigating” reports of civilian deaths, she said.
Asked how pilots could know whether a crowd gathered around the truck included civilians or fighters, she said: “Based on information available at the scene, the commanders believed they were insurgents.”
Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar said as many as 90 people were feared killed, burned alive in the giant blast.
“My brother was burnt when the aircraft bombed the fuel tankers.
The incident also demonstrates the mounting insecurity in the north of the country, an area that had been seen as safe but where Taliban attacks have become increasingly frequent.
Mohammad Sarwar, a tribal elder in the province, said Taliban fighters had hijacked the tankers and were offering fuel to a crowd of villagers when the tankers were bombed.
“We blame both the Taliban and the government,” he said.
Under new orders issued in July by the Isaf commander, US Army General Stanley McChrystal, air craft are not supposed to open fire unless they can confirm there is no chance civilians might be hurt or friendly forces are in immediate danger.
Dead too burnt for morgue
Mohammad Humayun Khamosh, a doctor at the Kunduz hospital, said 13 people with burns had been brought there for treatment, but none of the dead had been taken to the hospital’s morgue because the bodies were too badly burnt.
“It is very hard to collect dead bodies or remains from the blast because the fuel they were collecting was highly flammable,” he said.
A Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said fighters had captured the two fuel tankers. One had become stuck in mud by a village, and the fighters went to try to tow it when residents gathered to take the fuel and the crowd was struck.
US President Barack Obama has made stabilising Afghanistan a foreign policy priority although public support for the war has eroded as US combat deaths have risen to record levels.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday the military resources needed to stem Taliban gains were arriving in Afghanistan, but signalled he would be open to sending additional troops, asserting the war was not “slipping through the administration’s fingers”.—Reuters
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