From ABC, October 26, 2006
NATO says Taliban using civilians as shields
The NATO force in Afghanistan says the Taliban is using civilians as human shields as authorities scramble to verify reports that at least 60 people have been killed in military strikes.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says it cannot say how many civilians have been killed in a series of operations in the southern province of Kandahar late on Tuesday, but is helping Afghan authorities to find out.
ISAF says 48 Taliban were killed in three engagements, including air strikes, in Kandahar's Panjwayi area late on Tuesday.
However, the chief of Panjwayi district, Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, said he had reports that about 60 locals were killed in aerial bombing that also destroyed a number of houses.
The deputy director of Kandahar provincial council, Bismellah Afghanmal, put the figure as high as 85, but national authorities could not immediately confirm the local reports, which have in the past been exaggerated.
Reporters said there were at least 20 wounded people in Kandahar's main hospital, including women and children.
The force said it only knew of four injured civilians being treated at an ISAF military hospital.
Asked about civilian casualties, NATO civilian representative Mark Laity said "at the moment we don't know", adding any that had occurred were deeply regretted.
ISAF took great care to avoid civilian casualties, but the Taliban were mixing themselves among residents when attacked, NATO officials told reporters in the capital of Kabul.
"With insurgents who regard the population as a form of human shield for themselves, it obviously makes life very difficult for us, but it doesn't stop us making every effort to ensure we minimise any problems," Mr Laity said.
"We know that the public rely on us and expect us to take every care, and if they (civilians) are accidentally killed then it can affect (public) faith in us," he said.
ISAF was working with an Afghan Defence Ministry team that had been tasked to find out what had happened, he said.
"We are helping Afghan leaders there fly over the area to make an assessment," ISAF spokesman Major Luke Knittig said at the same briefing.
The force would also attend a shura (council) being convened in the area to discuss the matter, he said.
Tuesday's engagements were with insurgents - one a group of up to 40 - that ISAF said were infiltrating back into Panjwayi, which was the focus of ISAF's biggest anti-Taliban operation last month, which left hundreds of rebels dead.
The force afterwards said Operation Medusa was the biggest defeat of the Taliban since they were removed from government in late 2001.
Mr Laity said the reinfiltration was no surprise and the force was "pushing back hard" against it.
"We are having a lot of success but it is a very big, very tough and very continuing challenge. That's why we maintain significant forces in the area precisely because we need to demonstrate our ability to sustain presence and provide security."
ISAF wants to establish security so that much-needed reconstruction can begin in what it hopes will persuade people to side with the government and against the extremist Taliban.
But Taliban militants also use civilian casualties in their propaganda against the roughly 40,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, whom the militants say have invaded the country.
A government-appointed commission found that 53 civilians were killed during Operation Medusa.
President Hamid Karzai last week urged the NATO forces to take more care to avoid civilian casualties after up to 20 more people were reported killed in two bombing raids targeted at Taliban insurgents.