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The civilian death toll in Afghanistan heightens debate over air bombings.

New York Times

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan - A NATO airstrike on Friday blew up two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban, setting off competing claims about how many among the scores of dead were civilians and raising questions about whether the strike violated tightened rules on the use of airstrikes.

Afghan officials said as many as 90 people were killed by the strike near Kunduz, a northern city where the trucks got stuck after militants tried to drive them across a river late Thursday night.

The strike came at a time of intense debate in both the United States and Europe over the Afghan war and after a heavily disputed election that has left Afghanistan tense and, at least temporarily, without credible leaders.

Though there seemed little doubt that some of the dead were militants, it was unclear how many of the dead were civilians, and with anger at the foreign forces high here, NATO ordered an immediate investigation.

Recently, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, severely restricted the use of airstrikes, arguing that America risked losing the war if it did not reduce civilian casualties.

Underscoring his concern, on Friday he recorded a video message, translated into Dari and Pashto, to be released to Afghan news organizations.

The general began by greeting "the great people of Afghanistan, salaam aleikum (peace be upon you)."

"As commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people," McChrystal said in the brief message. "I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously."

Two 14-year-old boys and one 10-year-old boy were admitted to the regional hospital in Kunduz, along with a 16-year-old who later died. Mahboubullah Sayedi, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial governor, said most of the estimated 90 dead were militants, judging by the number of charred pieces of Kalashnikov rifles found. But he said civilians were also killed.

In explaining the civilian deaths, military officials speculated that local people were conscripted by the Taliban to unload the fuel from the tankers, which were stuck near a river several miles from the nearest villages.

But some people wounded by the strike said they had gone to the scene with gas cans after others had run through their villages saying free fuel was available.

"They were just telling us, 'Come and get the fuel,'" Wazir Gul, a 23-year-old farmer, said at the hospital, where he was treated for serious burns on his back. He estimated that hundreds of people from surrounding villages went to siphon fuel from the trucks before the airstrike.

Gul said his older brother Amir was among the villagers incinerated in the blast. "When the tanker exploded and burned, I knew he was dead," Gul said.

The wounded 10-year-old, Shafiullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said he had defied his father's orders by climbing on the family donkey to join the throng of villagers heading to pick up fuel.

"When I arrived there, I was on the donkey," Shafiullah, whose arms and legs were injured, said from his hospital bed. "I was not very close. I had not gotten the fuel yet when the bomb landed and the shrapnel injured me."

The airstrike occurred a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated that he is open to increasing U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan.

German forces in northern Afghanistan under the NATO command called in the attack, and German military officials initially insisted that no civilians had been killed. But a Defense Ministry spokesman in Berlin later said the ministry believed that more than 50 fighters had been killed but could give no details about civilian casualties.

Germany said it feared the hijackers would use the trucks to carry out a suicide attack against its military base nearby, the Associated Press reported.

The public health officer for Kunduz province, Dr. Azizullah Safar, said a medical team sent to the village reported that 80 people had been killed, and he said that "most of them were civilians and villagers."

A statement issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that he was "deeply saddened" and that he had sent a delegation to investigate.

"Targeting civilian men and women is not acceptable," the statement added.

Afghan officials said the attack struck a collection of hamlets known as Omar Kheil, near the border of the districts of Char Dara and Ali Abad. The district governor of Ali Abad, Hajji Habibullah, said the area was controlled by Taliban commanders.

The region is patrolled mainly by NATO's 4,000-member German force, which is barred by German leaders from operating in combat zones farther south. The United States has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than any other nation; other countries fighting under the NATO command have a combined total of about 40,000 troops.

According to the new rules, airstrikes are, in most cases, allowed only to prevent U.S. and other coalition troops from being overrun by enemy fighters.

Even in the case of active firefights with Taliban forces, airstrikes are to be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas.

From initial accounts given by NATO and Afghan officials, it was not clear whether this strike met those conditions, regardless of whether the majority of the dead were insurgents or civilians.


Britain stays put

With support for Britain's military role in Afghanistan weakening in opinion polls and among lawmakers in the ruling Labor Party, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recommitted his government on Friday to its partnership with the United States and other allied nations in their battle against the Taliban. But he made a fresh demand that other NATO nations accept a heavier share of the growing combat with the Taliban.

Guards dismissed

Eight security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan were fired and two resigned after allegations of lewd behavior and sexual misconduct at their living quarters. The Kabul senior management team of ArmorGroup North America, the private contractor that provides guards for the State Department, was also "being replaced immediately," an embassy statement said Friday.