(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Rights group, UN sceptical about reduced civilian casualties

Afghan and international forces fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have agreed on a number of measures designed to minimise civilian casualties in their military operations, officials told IRIN.

[Read this story in Arabic]

According to various unverified reports, over 800 civilians have died in fighting between government military personnel supported by international forces and Taliban insurgents in the past few months of 2007.

“One point in our new joint strategy is to use smaller and lighter bombs in aerial strikes,” Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), said in Kabul on 30 July.

After strong criticism from different parts of Afghanistan over scores of civilian deaths - allegedly in NATO and US aerial bombardments - the MoD set out plans for better coordination between Afghan and international forces and ways to reduce unwanted deaths.

The new strategy has been discussed, agreed upon and will be announced in the near future, the MoD said.

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The Afghan government and its international partners, including the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US military-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), have expressed willingness to address growing concerns about the situation of non-combatants in their military operations.

“Civilian casualties are a very serious matter. They need to be avoided,” said a NATO-ISAF spokeswoman in Kabul, who requested anonymity.

Change of NATO tactics

In an interview with the Financial Times, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer confirmed that ISAF will start using smaller bombs in its air strikes in Afghanistan “as part of a change in tactics aimed at stemming a rise in civilian casualties that threatens to undermine support in the fight against the Taliban”.

However, it is still unclear whether NATO’s decision to use smaller bombs will also apply to thousands of US forces operating in Afghanistan outside the NATO command structure.

Asked whether the US military would also go along with NATO’s decision, an OEF spokesperson at Bagram airbase declined to comment.

Doubts

While the government of Afghanistan welcomes NATO use of lighter bombs in aerial bombings of combat zones, the country’s human rights commission (AIHRC) and the UN have doubted the hype about smaller bombs not harming civilians.

“We cannot say whether a small or a big bomb is good,” said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN in Kabul. “Any civilian casualty is unacceptable,” he added.

''We cannot say whether a small or a big bomb is good. Any civilian casualty is unacceptable.''


Meanwhile, the AIHRC said if insurgents continued to shield civilians in their armed conflicts the smaller bombs used would still harm civilians.

Some Afghans fear that a reduction in the size of aerial bombs might be balanced by an increase in the number of aerial strikes - already higher than the number of aerial attacks in Iraq.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, an AIHRC spokesperson, said: “International forces should increase their ground presence and stop reliance on aerial strikes which mostly affect non-combatants.”

Currently there are over 33,000 international forces from 37 countries, led by NATO, and over 10,000 extra US troops operating under OEF command in Afghanistan.

More civilian deaths

On 29 July, 12 passengers of a civilian convoy were killed and eight wounded by gunmen allegedly associated with Taliban insurgents in Zabul Province, southern Afghanistan, said a press release issued by NATO forces in Kabul.


Photo: NATO
A map of Afghanistan highlighting Zabul, Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where much of the fighting between international forces and insurgents is taking place


It is still not yet known why insurgents killed and injured the passengers.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior said those killed in Zabul were employees of a private security company.

Over 20 civilians, meanwhile, died recently as a result of NATO bombings of two districts in insurgency-torn Helmand Province in the south of Afghanistan, provincial officials said.

In the last week of July, clashes between Taliban rebels and Afghan forces, backed by international forces, resulted in the death of scores of Taliban guerrillas, officials said.

Unverifiable owing to limited access to the volatile regions, reports of civilian casualties have turned into a controversial propaganda tool for parties to the conflict, specialists in Kabul said.

The UN has urged local media not to disseminate the propaganda of the parties to the conflict and ensure impartial coverage of events in Afghanistan.

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