Afghan campaign against al-Qaida to continue

KABUL, Afghanistan, AP

Afghanistan’s foreign minister said Saturday that the military campaign against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts will continue despite this week’s U.S. air attack that killed scores of civilians in a central province.

The U.S. military admitted for the first time Saturday that civilians died in the attack Monday, though U.S. President George W. Bush had already called the Afghan president Friday to express his condolences. Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah said the latest count showed 48 people were killed and 117 wounded.

Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill and Dr. Abdullah spoke at a joint news conference following a preliminary investigation into the air attack in Kakarak and four other hamlets in Uruzgan province where U.S. troops said they had observed anti-aircraft guns shooting at U.S. planes.

“Subsequent to the operation we determined there were civilian casualties,” McNeill said. “We will initiate a more formal investigation to determine what caused these civilian casualties and what we can do to make sure they do not happen again.”

He expected the report to take several more weeks.

McNeill said the casualty figures were provided by the Afghans, “but with exception of some injured, we have been unable to observe any of the dead. They have already been buried, as I understand,” McNeill did not challenge the casualty toll.

Dr. Abdullah said there was no question that the government of President Hamid Karzai supported U.S.-led operations against remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida. But it was imperative that ways be found to protect civilians.

“The question is not whether to continue the operations against al-Qaida or not,” Dr. Abdullah said. “We should find out ways and means in order to prevent tragedies like losses of civilians as collateral damage in this campaign.”

McNeill said the formal investigation would address possible changes in the way U.S. forces conduct operations. The investigation would also try to verify whether anti-aircraft fire was directed at U.S. planes from a compound in Kakarak where at least 25 people attending a wedding party were killed.