US Kills Dozens of Wedding Guests in Afganistan

By JESSICA LEEDER AND ALEX STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN

November 4, 2008


Dozens of Afghan civilians are dead and dozens more are wounded after a series of air strikes aimed at Taliban fighters fell short of their target and exploded in the middle of a wedding party in a mountainous region north of Kandahar city, tribal elders and wedding guests told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

Survivors of the attacks, which occurred in the village of Wech Baghtu in the district of Shah Wali Kowt on Monday evening, said the majority of the dead and injured were women – the bombs struck while male and female wedding guests were segregated, as is customary in Kandahar province.

They said the bodies of at least 36 women have been identified, and hundreds more men and women have been injured. Local leaders have yet to establish a firm casualty count because many of the victims remain buried beneath rubble, said Abdul Hakim Khan, a tribal elder from the district.

In interviews at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar city, where at least 16 male victims and dozens of female victims were being treated Tuesday night, several villagers described the attack. While Mr. Khan corroborated much of the information witnesses gave during a separate interview, it was not possible to independently verify their account or the numbers of dead and injured they gave.

Witnesses gave conflicting statements about the identity of troops who arrived at the scene after the air attacks, with some saying they saw Canadian soldiers while others said they saw U.S. troops.

It was not immediately clear which international forces were responsible for the air strikes.

A Canadian military source denied that Canada, which has responsibility for Kandahar province, had any involvement. “Task Force Kandahar has not been in any significant military engagement in Shah Vali Kowt in the last two days,” the source said.

The sparsely populated mountainous region surrounding the village is a known Taliban stronghold. In the past the area has been a target of various anti-insurgent special operations.

Mr. Khan said his village is situated at the foot of a mountain frequented by Taliban insurgents. At the time of the wedding, insurgents on the mountain had attempted to attack troops in the area with an improvised explosive device, Mr. Khan said. Fighting broke out between troops and insurgents after the Taliban began firing from the top of the mountain, which triggered the air strike, he said.

Abdul Zahir, 24, the brother of the bride, said fighting broke out between Taliban and international troops near a crossroads in the village early on Monday. Wedding guests first heard shots from the mountain about 4 p.m. Air strikes followed about half an hour later and lasted about five hours, he said.

While Mr. Zahir was not injured, his sister was severely hurt, as were three of his young cousins, Noor Ahmad, Hazrat Sadiq and Mohammad Rafiq, who range in age from three to five years old. During the interview, they lay sprawled out next to him on tiny hospital cots. Mr. Zahir said that in all eight members of his family were killed, including two of his brothers, Qahir and Twahir, and his grandmother. Fourteen other family members were injured.

The bombing wasn’t the end of the ordeal, witnesses said. When the air strikes were over, they said, international troops arrived in three sand-coloured armoured vehicles.

Villagers reported they were intimidated and prevented from leaving to seek medical treatment while the soldiers took pictures.

The governor of Kandahar province will hold a press conference on the incident Wednesday morning, a spokesman said.

“We are collecting information right now about this incident. It’s not complete,” the spokesman said.

Alex Strick van Linschoten is a freelancer based in Kandahar

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Taliban insurgents in a remote village northeast of Kandahar provoked an attack by coalition troops that devastated a wedding party on Monday and resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, the top politician in Kandahar has told The Globe and Mail.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, said he and his brother, President Hamid Karzai, were told by villagers during a teleconference on Wednesday that between 300 and 350 Taliban fighters invaded Wech Baghtu, a mountain village in the district of Shah Wali Kowt, 60 kilometres northeast of Kandahar city, during the lead-up to a wedding ceremony. Inside the village, insurgents stationed themselves on rooftops, including those of homes that were holding wedding events.

From there they began firing rocket-propelled grenades at a convoy of four military vehicles, Ahmed Karzai said he and his brother were told. The troops retaliated on a massive scale, killing and injuring dozens of villagers, including several family members of the bride and groom.

The precise number of casualties has yet to be determined, but figures reported by witnesses and district leaders range from 38 to 90 dead. As of Wednesday, about 50 victims, most of them women, had checked into Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar with serious injuries, including burns and severed limbs. Some with more severe injuries were taken to Quetta, Pakistan, district elders said.

It remains unclear from reports gathered from survivors whether troops launched an air strike or a mortar attack on the village. Women who were helping the bride plait her hair before the wedding told a Globe researcher they remembered hearing shooting, but they blacked out when bombs struck the mud-walled home.

When the women awoke, they said, they were with the bride in hospital. While none of the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan has taken responsibility for the attack, the U.S. military and the Afghan Ministry of the Interior announced a joint investigation into the incident.

“Though the facts are unclear at this point, we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan and to avoid circumstances where non-combatant civilians are placed at risk, said Commander Jeff Bender, a spokesman for the U.S. military. “If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences to the families and the people of Afghanistan. We have dispatched coalition personnel to the site to quickly assess the situation and take actions as appropriate.”

Although Canadian troops are responsible for Kandahar province, the Canadian Forces is adamant about its lack of involvement in the attack, which came to light late Tuesday after victims began arriving at Mirwais Hospital.

Major Jay Janzen, a spokesman for the Canadian military, said troops occasionally patrol the district centre of Shah Wali Kowt, but they rarely venture the 20 kilometres north to the village that was attacked.

At an afternoon press conference Wednesday, Rahmatullah Raoufi, the governor of Kandahar, identified U.S. forces as the troops involved in the attack. He also said the troops called in an air strike on the village in response to enemy fire. His office is still working to confirm numbers of casualties. In the meantime, Ahmed Karzai and the President said they have dispatched a team of trusted elders from the Shah Wali Kowt district to conduct a separate investigation.

Ahmed Karzai said the attack is a sign of the Taliban’s increasing reliance on terrorist tactics to turn locals against the government and coalition forces.

“People go against the government when civilian casualties happen,” Mr. Karzai said. “But the people know it’s because of [the Taliban] these casualties are happening.”

The issue of civilian casualties has been an increasing point of friction between Afghan government officials and coalition forces.

Between 2006 and 2007, there was a three-fold increase in civilian deaths from aerial attacks, according to a report released in September by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. The deaths are largely due to unplanned air strikes called in by U.S. forces, said the report, which put the number of civilian deaths due to air strikes at more than 300 for 2007.

This year, the use of air power has increased. During the past three months alone, more than 100 civilians have died in unplanned air strikes in southern Afghanistan, including at least 17 in Helmand province two weeks ago and 90 in Herat in August. A U.S. military investigation into that raid acknowledged the death of only 33 civilians.

Ahmed Karzai acknowledged that Afghan security forces have been hard-pressed to counter insurgents in the remote areas where militants control swaths of land and frequently exploit villagers to provoke attacks. He said that locals in rural Shah Wali Kowt rely mainly on police for protection, but their ranks are thin.

“The police have a problem there. They aren’t really able to control the area,” he said. “The job of the police is to maintain law and order.

“They are not trained to fight guerrilla war. That’s the job of the military,” he said.

Problems are compounded by the poor economic state of the region, which suffered further in Monday’s attack when farm fields were destroyed.

“I feel sorry for them,” Ahmed Karzai said. “If the people could be armed, or if they were able to create a group to fight the Taliban, a lot of people would pick up arms.”

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