KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s government says a new investigation shows 39 civilians, all women or children, were killed in a NATO rocket attack last month, fewer than first reported but dozens more than foreign forces have conceded.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it has been checking reports of civilian deaths since the government first said nearly two weeks ago that over 50 people had been killed by a rocket strike in southern Helmand province.
On Thursday, an ISAF spokesman, Lt. Raymond Jeffery, said he had no information about the result or progress of any probe and could not comment on the 39 deaths reported by President Hamid Karzai’s office late on Wednesday.
ISAF previously said an initial assessment showed six people died in an incident in the area and at the time in question, and that a “majority” were insurgents.
Those killed in the rocket were civilians who had crammed in a house after fleeing a clash between the Taliban and joint Afghan and foreign forces, the Afghan presidential office said in its statement.
“Subsequently, one rocket hit the house in which 39 women and children were killed and four wounded,” it said.
More than nine years after the ousting of the Taliban, civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers, whose 150,000 troops are engaged in an increasingly bloody war with insurgents.
Scores of civilians have also been killed in Taliban attacks aimed at government and foreign forces in the past years.
The latest reports coincided with the publication last week by the whistleblower group WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of classified U.S. documents which cast a new light on operations by foreign forces and the plight of civilians.
WikiLeaks described a pattern with thousands of unreported civilian deaths in the near nine-year-old war.
(Editing by David Fox and Miral Fahmy)