KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai ordered an inquiry Tuesday into a U.S. bombing that killed at least 16 civilians, including some at a religious school, and called for a meeting with the commander of American forces in Afghanistan.
It was the second time in five weeks that Karzai has complained about civilian deaths from airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. warplanes targeted the southern village overnight Sunday because Taliban fighters were hiding there, and dozens of the militants were killed. It was one of the deadliest U.S. attacks since the American-led invasion in 2001.
Karzai expressed “concern at the coalition forces’ decision to bomb civilian areas” in the village of Azizi in Kandahar province, but he also strongly condemned the “terrorists’ act of cowardice” in using civilians as human shields.
Local officials said 17 civilians died in the bombings of an Islamic school and mud-brick homes, and the U.S.-led coalition said at least 20 – and perhaps as many as 80 – militants were killed.
Just last month, Karzai complained about coalition attacks that killed seven civilians in eastern Kunar province. Karzai ordered an investigation and demanded the coalition use restraint.
In September, the Afghan president challenged the need for major foreign military operations, saying airstrikes no longer were effective. But that statement came before a resurgence of militant activity this spring with snow melting on the high mountain passes used by fighters.
Militant supporters of the former Taliban regime have stepped up attacks this year, triggering a tough response from coalition and Afghan forces. The coalition airstrike on Azizi was the third clash there in a week.
Up to 27 militants were killed in a ground battle and airstrike in the same area Thursday.
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Tamara Lawrence, said she could not comment on whether the military would change its tactics after the Azizi bombing.
An official with the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the attack was “completely predictable and avoidable,” and he accused the Taliban of purposely endangering civilians.
“In southern Afghanistan, civilians are caught in the crossfire, and we expect it’s going to be a long and bloody summer,” said Sam Zarifi, head of the group’s Asia division. “Taliban insurgent forces who take shelter in a civilian area knowing that it’s going to draw hostile fire are violating international law.
“There is some evidence that was happening in this case.”
Zarifi also said the coalition should change its tactics to avoid civilian casualties. “This sometimes means not launching attacks in certain civilian-heavy areas, and using the right weapons,” he said.