6 civilians, not 52, killed in July airstrike on Afghan house, ISAF probe finds
August 18, 2010
RAF MILDENHALL, England — U.S. military officials in Afghanistan said late Tuesday that “approximately” six civilians were killed in a July 23 missile strike — far fewer than the 52 civilians Afghan President Hamid Karzai said had died.
The attack on a house in Sangin district, Helmand province, also killed eight Taliban fighters, said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman with the International Security Assistance Force.
Karzai’s spokesmen could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Dorrian acknowledged that there are still differences in the body count.
“Afghan and coalition officials disagree on the number of civilian casualties that occurred,” he said.
U.S. Marines fired a Javelin missile at a house occupied by insurgents and civilians near, Dorrian said in an e-mail.
The Taliban had taken up positions on the roof of the house and were keeping the civilians trapped inside, he said.
At the time, some residents of the town of Regey told the British newspaper The Guardian that they believed U.S. forces deliberately attacked them as they hid from fighting in a mud house.
“The Americans can see tiny things on the ground, but they could not see us,” Haji Abdul Ghafar, a 38-year-old farmer who had fled to Regey from a nearby village, told the Guardian. “I think they bombed us on purpose.”
Regey is bounded by two rivers and used as a safe haven where locals can escape fighting between insurgents and foreign forces, The Guardian reported.
“There has never been fighting in Regey because people thought that the military or Taliban will not cross the river,” Haji Fazul Haq, a former Sangin district governor, told The Guardian. “People have always thought this is the best place to be safe.”
Shortly after the incident, Karzai said in a statement that a house in Sangin was hit by a rocket launched by coalition troops, “leaving 52 civilians dead, including women and children,” according to a July 25 Agence France-Presse report.
“The president consoled via phone with the mourning families and called on NATO troops to put into practice every possible measure to avoid harming civilians during military operations,” Karzai said in the statement, according to the AFP.
ISAF and Afghan officials traveled to the area after the conflict to assess the situation, according to Dorrian. Once there, investigators “reviewed imagery from the scene, interviewed witnesses and local officials, and assessed grave sites to determine the number of people killed in the engagement.”
The bodies of those killed in the fight were removed from the scene by villagers, Dorrian said.
The battle illustrates the difficulty U.S. forces in Afghanistan face as they simultaneously fight the Taliban and try to protect the population and win them over to the Afghan government’s side.
The Marines involved took fire from the house for more than four hours before the decision to fire the rocket was made, Dorrian said.
No Marines are under investigation in connection to the incident, he said.
“The Incident Assessment Team determined that the Marines followed the appropriate procedure before using the Javelin missile in self-defense,” he said. “Our troops always maintain the inherent right to defend themselves.”