Afghan civilian deaths mystery deepens as Nato denies claims

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AFGHAN government and Nato officials yesterday disputed each others' accounts of reports that more than 50 civilians were killed after being caught up in fighting between foreign forces and Taliban insurgents.

Government spokesman Siamak Herawi said 52 people, many of whom were women and children, were killed by a Nato-rocket attack on Friday in Sangin, Helmand province, but the Nato-led force said a preliminary investigation had not yet revealed any civilian casualties.

Civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, whose 150,000 troops are engaged in an increasingly bloody war with insurgents. The United Nations said it was "deeply concerned" at the reports and urged a thorough investigation.

"I once again highlight the need for all sides to meet their obligations to protect civilians," said Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general's special representative.

Mr Herawi said information that 52 civilians had been killed came from the country's intelligence service in the district.

Mr Karzai strongly condemned the attack and asked Nato troops to prioritise the protection of civilians in their military campaign, his office said in a statement citing the same casualty figures for the attack.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), however, insisted a joint investigation with the Afghan government had so far found no evidence of civilian deaths, while a provincial official suggested local residents could even have made it up.

"The villagers took the joint team to a graveyard in Rigi village and they claimed that 35 people were buried there, but the graves seemed to be old," said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, referring to the village where the incident is supposed to have taken place.

"The team have not found any evidence to show that the civilians were killed," he said. "They may have been lying but we are there to find out."

There are various compensation packages for civilians caught up in the fighting, but ISAF has reported many cases of wrongful claims.

In TV interviews conducted with villagers from Rigi, they said at least one helicopter had been circling the area before the rocket attack and talked off removing bodies from the rubble of a house where a large number of people had been sheltering.

An ISAF spokeswoman said the team was still in the area, trying to establish the truth. "We take any civilian casualty very seriously but there was no report of operational activity in Rigi," said Lieutenant Commander Katie Kendrick.

ISAF has a poor reputation among ordinary Afghans for investigating similar incidents. In the worst attack of its kind, 140 civilians were killed in May last year in an ISAF air strike on a village in Western Farah province, the government said, among them 93 children and 25 women.

For days, the ISAF denied knowledge of the incident, then suggested those killed were mostly insurgents, before admitting to a much lower casualty figure. Stricter rules of engagement for Western forces - particularly over the use of air power - have led to a reduction in civilian deaths.

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