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Nato air strike, Afghan forces kill 64 civilians

By Reuters

Joint operations by Afghan forces and Nato-led foreign troops have killed 64 civilians in eastern Kunar province, including many women and children, over the past four days, the provincial governor said.

"They were killed by ground and air strikes in Ghazi Abad district," Fazlullah Wahidi, governor of Kunar province, told Reuters on Sunday.

Wahidi said 20 of the dead were women, 29 were children or young adults aged 7 to 20, and the remaining 15 were adult men.

Civilian casualties in Nato-led military operations, often caused by air strikes and night raids, have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western partners.

Rules governing air strikes and night raids have been tightened significantly by Nato-led forces in the past two years, leading to a sharp drop in civilian casualties caused by such incidents.

Mistakes still occur, although UN and other figures show that insurgents cause at least three-quarters of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement a team would investigate "allegations of ISAF-caused civilian casualties" during operations in Kunar, which it said were carried out in a remote and rugged area.

It said it was aware of Wahidi's comments "that coalition forces killed more than 50 civilians", and that ISAF reporting and weapons system video showed 36 armed insurgents were killed.

"We take allegations of civilian casualties very seriously. We are conducting an immediate assessment of these allegations and will report our findings," US Army Colonel Patrick Hynes, a senior ISAF spokesman, said in the statement.

ISAF said on Friday that more than 30 insurgents had been killed in an overnight mission in Kunar, and on Saturday that operations had been going on in Ghazi Abad since Feb. 16.

An earlier ISAF statement on Sunday said ISAF had engaged an "unknown number of insurgents" in two separate operations and attacked with small-arms fire and air strikes. The coalition also said earlier seven civilians may have been wounded.

Videos taken by Reuters television in a hospital in the provincial capital, Asadabad, showed two children being treatedfor leg wounds alongside two wounded women.

"There has been ongoing operations in different parts of Ghazni Abad for the last three days," said a man who identified himself as Ibrahim, a resident in Elgal village in Ghazi Abad.

He said "bombardments" had killed 12 men, about 30children and 10 women. Another villager, Farhad, said 62 civilians had been killed.

Ghazi Abad has long been a restive area. Afghan and ISAF officials say insurgents launch attacks and then hide in the remote and rugged valley in which Elgal nestles.

There have been several recent attacks on ISAF and Afghan convoys on a tiny rode that snakes through Elgal.

A United Nations report late last year found that civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 20 percent in the first10 months of 2010 compared with 2009, with more than three-quarters killed or wounded by insurgents.

The report found that there were 6,215 civilian casualties in the period, including 2,412 deaths. Those caused by Afghan and foreign "pro-government" forces accounted for 12 per cent of the total, an 18 per cent drop.

Other rights agencies have since documented similar figures.