Civilians Die as Taliban Fights US-Led Troops

KABUL – A sudden upsurge in Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has seen casualties mount daily among combatants and the civilian population.

The rebels, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led coalition forces in late 2001, have regrouped in the southern provinces to ambush and strike government and military targets nearly every day.

Caught in the crossfire are civilians. Sixteen people were confirmed killed in U.S. air strikes on Taliban hideouts in a village in Kandahar province on May 22. A concerned International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned the warring sides to "exercise constant care in the conduct of military operations."

"The ICRC is deeply concerned about the worsening situation and its effects on civilians. In particular, ICRC urges the parties (involved in conflict) to exercise constant care in the conduct of military operations," a statement issued in Geneva on the day of the U.S. air raids stated.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an inquiry. He paid a surprise visit to Azizi village in Panjwayee district and met the survivors on May 25. The U.S. military claimed that among the dead were 60 rebels.

However, villagers told Pajhwok Afghan News that most of the victims were civilians.

Qayum Pakhla, a doctor at the Kandahar Civil Hospital, said they had admitted 15 injured, including seven male, four female, and four children, from the Panjwayee district. Several were in serious condition, added the doctor.

A man accompanying one of the injured told Pajhwok Afghan News that villagers had had to flee the area to escape the bombing. Bodies of the dead and injured victims were lying in pools of blood, the man identified as Baryalai said. It was left to their relatives to take the injured to hospital; the authorities were nowhere to be found, he said.

While the Taliban did not issue a statement, the bombardment was preceded by days of fierce combat with Afghan and coalition forces. Last week, both sides had issued conflicting statements about casualties.

Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Kandahar governor, claimed 11 Taliban were killed, while the rebels owned up to losing one person. Taliban spokesman Yousaf Ahmadi said 11 policemen had perished. But according to residents, there were many civilian victims and much damage to property.

Lawlessness has spread in the southern provinces. The Taliban have stepped up attacks at a time when the NATO forces are in the process of taking over security from the U.S. forces as part of the 26-member alliance’s southward expansion plan in Afghanistan.

Early May, Britain assumed control of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is preparing to move from primarily reconstruction activities to combat operations in Afghanistan. The arrival of 6,000 NATO troops, including its elite Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, will allow the U.S. to reduce its force of 18,000 by 2,000 or 3,000 troops in August.

The number of foreign troops in southern Afghanistan will double with NATO coming in. American forces and aircraft will remain in the border provinces and are expected to come under the NATO flag by November.

The departure of American troops from southern Afghanistan has already raised concerns among Afghans there as they face an increasingly violent insurgency.

A resurgent Taliban have engaged the security forces in bloody battles and suicide attacks. A bomber rammed his explosives laden car into a truck near the office of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Hoodkhel, Kabul, on May 19. The Taliban claimed "heavy casualties" among ISAF and coalition soldiers, but officials did not confirm this.

Coalition forces claimed they had wrested control of eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces during a six-week spring offensive code-named "Mountain Lion." U.S. and Afghan forces launched the joint operation to flush out the Taliban from several areas that they controlled, defense ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said.

Spokesman for the coalition forces in Kabul, Col. Tom Collins, said 10 U.S. soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during the operation. The CH-47 copter crashed near Asadabad, provincial capital of Kunar, on May 6.

In two other incidents this month, two U.S. soldiers were killed and two injured. A total of 20 U.S. troops were killed in action both in 2003 and 2004. The figure shot up to 66 last year, according to the U.S. Military Times newspaper.

On May 6, two Italians were killed by a landmine blast in Kandahar. Late last month, four Canadian soldiers were killed when a remote-controlled device in the Shah Wali Kot district in the volatile province blew up their vehicle.

(Inter Press Service, courtesy of Pajhwok Afghan News)