Thursday, May 7, 2009

'Truckloads of bodies, mostly women and children'

Patrick Cockburn sums up the latest outrage:

'120 die' as US bombs village
Patrick Cockburn - The Independent

KABUL, May 7 - 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...

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 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... (link)
Estimates of the number of casualties in the incident run as high as 150+, according to Afghan officials:
[Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council] said villagers allege that more than 150 civilians died in the bombing.

Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, a former district chief of Bala Buluk, said between 100 and 120 people were killed in the attacks... (link)
And elsewhere:
[Jessica] Barry, the ICRC spokesperson, said: "I think that it is important to remember that this is not a one-off situation. There has been a rise in casualties over the last year... (link)
Finally The Times:
Jessica Barry, an ICRC representative, said that an international Red Cross team in Bala Baluk saw “dozens of bodies in each of the two locations” on Tuesday. “There were bodies, there were graves, and there were people burying bodies when we were there,” she said. “We do confirm women and children.”
True to form*, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has issued a denial of sorts:
"We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties," McKiernan said. He would not elaborate but said the United States was working with the Afghan government to learn the truth.

A senior U.S. defense official said late Wednesday that Marine special operations forces believe the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, who then loaded some of the bodies into a vehicle and drove them around the village, claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike.

A second U.S. official said a senior Taliban commander is believed to have ordered the grenade attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Two other senior defense officials said the grenade report comes from villagers interviewed by U.S. investigators who went to the site, but there is no proof yet that the report is right.

If correct, it would be the first time the Taliban has used grenades in this way, presumably to mimic the effect of a bombing... (link)
Yet locals have a different story:
A girl named Shafiqa wounded in the fighting told Associated Press Television News: "We were at home when the bombing started. Seven members of my family were killed." ... (link)
And finally, the Red Cross seems convinced that airstrikes are the culprit:
Tribal elders called the Red Cross during the fighting to report civilian casualties and ask for help, said Reto Stocker, the agency's head in Afghanistan.

"We know that those killed included an Afghan Red Crescent volunteer and 13 members of his family who had been sheltering from fighting in a house that was bombed in an airstrike," Stocker said... (link)

* It is worth recalling that last summer, when over 90 civilians were killed in a similar incident in Azizabad, US officials initially denied that any civilians were killed, then acknowledged only that a handful were killed, then admitted more were killed, then finally re-investigated months later and admitted a substantial number of dead civilians. Yet, still the US military's count was well below the early reports from various NGO's and the press reporting fromthe scene.


Blog entries on the Azizabad massacre: First, second, third, fourth.


Jon Boone, writing for the Guardian from Kabul, relates locals' estimates of over 200 victims in the Bala Baluk incident:
Afghanistan police operation leaves devastation behind

KABUL, May 6 - The villagers of Geraani and Gangabad had just finished their breakfast when the Taliban came to their town to collect a so-called tax on the area's poppy farmers...

Some locals estimated the death toll at up to 200...

Village elder Hajji Issa Khan from Gangabad may be more precise because throughout yesterday his tractor was used to carry the dead to a central area where the villagers could mourn their dead and bury them immediately, in accordance with Islamic custom.

"In this operation there were 127 people killed. I can tell you exactly because my driver was carrying those … people to the centre of the town and he came and told me that he carried 127 people." ...

Locals say that the Taliban were "foreigners" – a mixture of Arabs and Chechens as well as Afghans from neighbouring Helmand province...

"It was 8am when the Taliban came. We were in our houses finishing our breakfast," said Hajji Issa Khan, an elderly and obviously anguished man who struggled to finish his sentences, by phone.

"The Taliban went to each house saying that we want to collect the poppy tax. We were talking to them up to almost 10 o'clock when the Afghan forces came. When they came we were inside our houses with the Taliban who would not let us go outside.

"Neither the army nor the police told us they were going to start this operation or gave us a chance to escape." (link)

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