tampabay.com

Air Force insists militants, not civilians, were killed

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 29, 2007


A U.S. AIR BASE, Southwest Asia - The regional U.S. air commander stands by initial reports that American airstrikes killed scores of Taliban in two western Afghan villages in recent weeks - not 72 or more civilians, as Afghan officials and other witnesses say.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North, chief of Central Command's air component, said in an interview with the Associated Press on Sunday that investigations into the attacks, in Herat province on April 27-29, and Helmand province on May 8, are still under way.

When asked whether he believes 136 suspected Taliban were killed in the Herat attacks, as reported by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan at the time, North said: "I've not seen anything that would determine otherwise."

Regional officials of the Afghan government said on May 2 that the Herat attacks killed at least 51 civilians.

In Helmand, the coalition said a "significant" number of militants died in the air attacks. But the provincial governor said at least 21 civilians died.

North said he had not seen the witness reports that those killed by his Central Command planes were civilians.

The general was interviewed at his headquarters base. As a condition for visiting the base, journalists are required by the Air Force to withhold the identity of the host country, because of local political sensitivities.

Richard Bennett, the U.N. human rights chief in Afghanistan, said Monday there were between 320 and 380 civilian deaths in military operations and militant violence in the first four months of the year.

In new fighting, the coalition said Monday that Taliban militants ambushed U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, sparking a 10-hour battle and airstrikes that killed an estimated two dozen militants. Villagers said seven civilians were among the dead.

Also Monday, a British soldier died in fighting in Helmand province, officials said.