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Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Wednesday, 27 August 2008 15:48 UK

Afghan bombing drives allies apart

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

A young woman who was allegedly wounded by a US air strike in Herat province (23 August)
There is no official comment on when the US inquiry results will be released

It was the early hours of Friday morning when US and Afghan troops moved in to Azizabad, a village in western Afghanistan close to the Iranian border.

Their target was described as a "key Taleban leader" and after receiving intelligence reports of his whereabouts, the troops attacked.

What happened next in the Shindand district of Herat province has driven a wedge between President Hamid Karzai and American forces, between the United Nations and Nato, and has threatened to change the way international troops do business in Afghanistan.

There are two interpretations of what happened that night and as yet no indisputable evidence either way.

The US military called it a "successful operation" and up until 24 hours later still "remained confident" no civilians had been killed.

Troops under Operation Enduring Freedom, the counter-terrorist arm of US activities in Afghanistan, working outside of Nato's command and remit, were satisfied those killed had been insurgents - one of them an important target.

But the other interpretation is that up to 90 civilians died - more than half of them children - after false intelligence was deliberately given by a rival tribe and a funeral wake was bombed killing many innocent people.

Anti-American feeling

That view is shared by President Karzai and his cabinet, the Afghan defence and interior ministries, tribal elders, members of parliament, Herat's police chief, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and now the United Nations.

A boy stands next to the rubble of his house, following a US air strike in western Afghanistan (23 August)
There are two interpretations of what happened in Shindand district
"We found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children," said a statement from the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan.

"This is a matter of grave concern to the United Nations," Kai Eide's statement went on, describing how the name, age and gender of the victims had been collected and "the destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident".

It is a strongly worded and scathing report aimed at US forces and based on interviews with local people.

Shindand is a fiercely tribal area and there have been claims by local people of a large number of civilian casualties in the past which have turned out to be exaggerated.

But there have been a number of separate delegations sent to investigate and their findings all match up.

Every night for the past week the state-run national television station has been running stories showing strong anti-American feeling among Afghan people.

Hearts and minds

The US are "investigating", but privately they are sticking to their story, labelling reports of civilian casualties as "Taleban propaganda".

There has been no official comment on when the inquiry results will be released, but an investigation into a wedding party bombed by mistake in the eastern Nangahar province by US forces in July has still not been made public.

US soldier in Afghanistan
The US counter-insurgency mission is trying to win local support
A fierce row is now going with the Afghan government and within the international community.

The lack of a body count or clear evidence one way or the other has created a stand-off which is destabilising the West's relationship with the Afghan government.

Killing innocent people by accident in a counter-insurgency campaign is not only tragic, but is hugely detrimental to the objective - to win, not lose, hearts and minds.

President Karzai knows how seriously the issue of civilian casualties is taken among Afghan people, and is keen to distance himself from such incidents, which he knows will affect his popularity ahead of next year's election.

After a cabinet meeting the government announced it would hold serious talks to renegotiate the terms of the international presence in the country.

"The presence of the international community in Afghanistan should be re-regulated based on bilateral agreements," a statement said, adding that limits should be placed on military forces and "air strikes on civilian targets, unilateral searches of homes and illegal detentions must be stopped immediately".

What exactly happened during the Shindand operation is dominating the debate between the Afghan government and the international community, but at the same time insurgents are killing aid workers and innocent people every day - and it is not possible to hold them accountable for their actions.




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