AN American war jet blasted two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan yesterday, killing up to 90 people, including insurgents and dozens of civilians who had rushed to the scene to collect fuel, Afghan officials said.
Germany, which called in the airstrike, insisted there were no civilians in the area at the time. Later, however, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged some civilians may have died and the US-led coalition and the Afghan government announced a joint investigation. The attack in northern Kunduz province is likely to intensify Afghan public anger over such casualties, which prompted NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal last June to order curbs on airstrikes where civilians are at risk.
Violence has soared across much of the country since US President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, shifting the focus of the US-led war on Islamic extremism from Iraq. Fifty-one US troops died in Afghanistan in August, the deadliest month for American forces there since the US-led invasion in late 2001.
Kunduz, a former Taliban stronghold, had been generally peaceful until insurgent attacks began rising earlier this year — perhaps an effort to control a profitable smuggling route from Tajikistan. Most of the fighting in Afghanistan this summer has been in the south and east, where US and British forces operate. The Germans are responsible for the Kunduz area.
The airstrike occurred a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates signalled for the first time that he may be willing to send more troops after months of publicly resisting a significant increase — despite growing public opposition in the United States to the war.
A large number of civilian casualties could also stoke opposition in Germany to the Afghan mission ahead of the September 27 German national elections. There are 4,050 German soldiers in Afghanistan and polls show a majority of Germans oppose the mission.
German commanders ordered the airstrike after the vehicles were seized near their base — possibly for a suicide attack against the German camp, according to German deputy Defence Minister Thomas Kossendey. Officials said an unmanned surveillance aircraft was dispatched to the scene before the attack and determined no civilians were in the area.
German officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said the strike took place 40 minutes after the commanders requested it. It was unclear whether civilians began to assemble during that time.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the trucks were headed from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul. When the hijackers tried to drive the trucks across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads, he said.
Villagers swarmed the trucks to collect the fuel despite warnings that they might be hit with an airstrike, Mujahid said, claiming no Taliban fighters died in the attack.
Abdul Moman Omar Khel, member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village where the airstrike happened, said about 500 people from surrounding communities swarmed the trucks after the Taliban invited them to help themselves to the fuel.
“The Taliban called to the villagers, ‘Come take free fuel’,” he said. “The people are so hungry and poor.”
He said five people were killed from a single family, and a man he knows named Haji Gul Bhuddin lost three sons. Kunduz Governor Mohammad Omar said 90 people were killed, including a local Taliban commander and four Chechen fighters. A senior Afghan police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the dead included about 40 civilians. The director of the Kunduz hospital Humanyun Khmosh said a dozen people, including a 10-year-old boy, were treated for severe burns.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sharply criticised the US-led command for allegedly using excessive force in the war against the Taliban, alienating the civilian population. Karzai repeated those charges in last month’s still-unresolved presidential election and yesterday announced he was creating a panel to investigate the attack.
“Targeting civilians is unacceptable for us,” he said.
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