| ||Commander Apologizes for Afghan Airstrike|
The New York Times
By Alissa J. Rubin
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KABUL - The NATO and United States troop commander in Afghanistan flew to the eastern part of the country on Friday to apologize personally to surviving family members for a coalition airstrike earlier this week that local officials said killed 18 civilians.
The apology by the commander, Gen. John R. Allen, was the first admission by coalition forces that the strike on Wednesday had killed civilians, and his rare decision to meet with families close to the site of the attack, in Logar Province, was a sign that his command took the episode seriously. President Hamid Karzai has condemned the strike in strong terms and cut short a trip to China to press forward an investigation.
A joint Afghan and coalition investigation into the circumstances that led to the strike, the number of civilians killed and the procedures that were used is still under way, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian T. Badura, a coalition spokesman.
The airstrike, which occurred in the early morning, targeted a Taliban commander who was taking shelter with some of his men in a home where a wedding had taken place, according to locals, in the village of Sagawand in the Baraki Barak district of Logar Province, a Pashtun area in eastern Afghanistan.
The civilian casualties, which appear likely to be the worst so far this year involving international forces, come two months after the primary responsibility for night raids was handed to the Afghans as part of a memorandum of understanding between Afghanistan and the United States. The transfer of responsibility to the Afghans was meant in part to diminish situations like this one. The episode raised new questions about procedures and criteria for airstrikes, human rights advocates said.
During Friday’s trip to Logar Province, General Allen said: “I am here not only as the commander of the coalition forces but also as a father, to apologize for the tragedy that occurred two days ago. Additionally, I am committed to ensuring we do the right thing for the families of those we inadvertently harmed, as well as for the community in which they lived.”
In comments to The Associated Press, General Allen said that the joint Afghan-NATO force carrying out the operation had come under fire and that the troops did not know there were civilians in the house.
“They were taken under fire,” he said. “A hand grenade was thrown. Three of our people were wounded. We called for the people who were shooting to come out, and then the situation became more grave and innocent people were killed.”
According to a doctor who spoke to some women who survived the bombing, the Taliban prevented the civilians from leaving the house when the joint force shouted for the civilians to come out. A United Nations human rights team that has been investigating the circumstances surrounding the attack said its researchers had also heard that civilians were prevented from leaving the house, but with two versions of the details. In one, the Taliban told the women, elderly men and children that if they walked outside, they would be shot. In the other, the Taliban fighters prevented their going.
“You will never know for sure what motivated people to stay inside,” said James Rodehaver, the acting head of human rights for the United Nations team.
“All you can go on is whether they say they felt coerced or threatened, and that’s standard in a situation where you have fighters taking cover with civilians,” he said. “Could you seriously expect that a civilian would flee their home when armed men are awaiting them outside?”
The larger question the episode raises for human rights advocates is whether killing these particular Taliban fighters justified the use of air power, which always poses risks to any civilians who are nearby.
“You have to ask: what was the value of these Taliban that the military would risk using something as indiscriminate as air power on a civilian house?” said Mr. Rodehaver. “It’s a matter of proportionality and distinction of targets, and it was fully apparent that this was a civilian residence.”
In northern Afghanistan on Friday, the Taliban detonated an explosive device at a security wall around the jail in Sar-i-Pul Province, allowing those inside to escape through the hole. Several people, including three police officers and four prisoners, were killed in the blast and ensuing fighting, said Abdul Jabar Haqbeen, governor of Sar-i-Pul. More than a dozen escaped, Mr. Haqbeen said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the jail break in a statement posted on their Web site.
Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul.