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Afghan villagers say NATO airstrike killed 18 family members

By Ali Safi and Jon Stephenson, McClatchy Newspapers –

SAJAWAND, Afghanistan — Like any prospective bride, 18-year-old Fatima Akhundzadah was looking forward to her wedding with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation. On Tuesday, two nights before she was to marry a young man from her village, her female relatives helped paint her hands with henna, as is the tradition in Afghanistan.

(PHOTO: Mohammad Anwar Kochi, a tribal elder in the village where locals say 18 people were killed a Wednesday NATO airstrike, is pictured at the site of the airstrike Thursday June 7, 2012, in the village of Sajawand, in Logar province, Afghanistan.)

But her dreams were extinguished in an instant around 2 a.m., when a U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombed the compound they lived in. She and 17 members of her extended family perished in the blast.

“They changed the color of her hands from henna to blood,” said Khan Wazir, one of Fatima’s relatives, as he stood amid the rubble on Thursday.

What happened at Sajawand on Wednesday, when U.S. and Afghan forces raided the village in the early hours, is still far from clear. But accounts from the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is known, as well as from interviews with Afghan officials and residents of Sajawand village in Logar province, south of Kabul, suggest that the raid went horribly wrong.

While the accounts vary in detail, it now seems almost certain that several Afghan women, teenagers and children were killed in the airstrike. They highlight the difficulties and dangers of counterinsurgency in a country like Afghanistan — of balancing the need to protect U.S.-led coalition forces with the need to protect the civilian population and to limit “collateral damage.”

The accounts also illustrate the psychological as well as physical damage that wayward airstrikes can inflict — how they infuriate and alienate Afghans, significantly undermining the attempt to win hearts and minds that is the purported centerpiece of coalition strategy.

At first, the ISAF denied reports of civilian casualties. A coalition statement reported Wednesday that during an operation to detain a Taliban leader, a group of insurgents fired on the joint Afghan-coalition force with small arms and a grenade, and refused calls to surrender. So the coalition called in an airstrike.

The coalition initially acknowledged that two women had “sustained non-life-threatening injuries,” but there was no mention of the Akhundzadah house being hit. Within hours, after Afghan media began to report that civilians were among the dead, ISAF said it would send a team to investigate.

Returning early to Afghanistan from an official visit to China, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday condemned the airstrike. “NATO operations that inflict human and material losses to civilians can in no way be justifiable, acceptable and tolerable,” he said in a written statement.

A reporter who reached Sajawand around midday Thursday found a scene of devastation at the Akhundzadah compound, where the family’s two houses once stood. The home of Abdul Basir Akhundzadah — the father of Fatima, the bride — was badly damaged; its mud-brick supporting walls had collapsed and the roof had caved in.

The house of Qayum Akhundzadah, Abdul Basir’s brother, had a huge hole in what remained of the ceiling, indicating the location of the bomb dropped by the coalition aircraft. Piles of rubble littered the property, from the front of the compound to the shattered rooms of both houses.

Khan Wazir, a 22-year-old teacher trainee, could barely contain his fury. “Everything has been destroyed,” he said. “Nothing remained alive except four chickens and a cow.”

Stealing shade from a tree at the front of the compound, Wazir quietly recited details of the dead: Abdul Basir, an unemployed man in his early 50s; his daughter Fatima; Qayum, in his 40s, who sold confections in Kabul but was home for Fatima’s wedding; and Salima, 35, his wife.

Then there were Qayum and Salima’s four children, ages 2 to 10, and three other young children belonging to Salima’s sister, the youngest being 8 months. The others were relatives who had traveled to Sajawand for Fatima’s wedding.

The incident underscored how innocent civilians continue to be caught between ISAF and Afghan government forces on one hand and insurgents on the other. No one interviewed in Sajawand could confirm the presence of Taliban in the village on the night the compound was attacked. The most any villager would admit to hearing was shooting around 1:30 a.m., before the airstrike.

Asked whether the Taliban had been using one of the family’s houses for a meeting, the villagers declined to answer. Some responded, in effect: “What can we do if the Taliban show up and demand the use of our home?”

Several people said it was possible that the insurgents had used Qayum Akhundzadah’s home for a meeting. The Taliban maintain a strong presence in the area; while driving out of Sajawand on the way to Pul-i-Alam, the provincial capital, a McClatchy reporter and driver were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint on the main road.

“The Americans should get rid of the Taliban. If they cannot do that, they should leave,” Kochi said. He added that the Taliban were “all over the place,” yet the government lied about their presence. He added, quoting an Afghan proverb, “We cannot hide the sun with two fingers.”

Earlier Thursday, Logar’s governor, Mohammad Tahir Sabri, said security in his province was good, “contrary to reports in the media.” Yet the official delegation investigating the airstrike had to be flown the short distance from the provincial capital by U.S. military helicopters.

Mohammad Yar, Fatima’s second cousin, said that must hold the U.S.-led coalition accountable.

“We want revenge on the Americans,” he said, his face contorted with anger, “and we want the president to help us take our revenge.” He said that he had spoken by phone with Karzai.

“The president has broken a lot of his promises in the past. But he promised me that, this time, he will definitely pursue the case with the Americans,” Yar said. “If our demands are not met, we will go to Karzai and ask him to kill us, too.”

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