The regional U.S. air commander stands by initial reports that American air strikes killed scores of Taliban in two western Afghan villages in recent weeks. Afghan officials and other witnesses say there were 72 or more civilians killed.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North, chief of the Central Command's air component, noted that investigations into the attacks, April 27-29 in Herat province and May 8 in Helmand province, are still under way.
When asked whether he believes 136 suspected Taliban were killed in the Herat attacks, as reported by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan at the time, North said, "I've not seen anything that would determine otherwise."
Regional officials of the U.S.-allied Afghan government said on May 2 that the Herat attacks killed at least 51 civilians, including women and children. Villagers later told reporters no Taliban were present, and villagers themselves had fired on the Americans after the troops raided their homes and shot two old men dead.
In Helmand, the coalition said a "significant" number of militants died in the air attacks. But the provincial governor said at least 21 civilians died in the bombing, which he said occurred after militants sought shelter in village homes.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, reacting to the continuing civilian deaths in U.S. air and ground operations, said on May 2 his government could "no longer accept" such casualties. On May 8, the Afghan Parliament's upper house adopted a resolution calling for a military cease-fire and negotiations with the Taliban.
In an Associated Press interview late Sunday, North was asked whether he had seen the eyewitness reports that those killed by his Central Command planes were civilians.
"I have not. That's ISAF'S job," he said, referring to the NATO alliance's International Security Assistance Force, the ground command in Afghanistan.
Since the 2001 anti-Taliban invasion, Afghans have repeatedly protested large-scale killings of civilians in coalition air attacks.
The regional Air Force commander was asked whether, as some critics say, U.S. ground forces spread thinly in the Afghan countryside are often too hasty to call for devastating air power to support their operations.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think our ground forces and our ground commanders - we're schooled professionals."
He said his pilots often don't drop bombs in combat situations because "there's a very deliberate checklist, which includes our lawyers, which sit side by side with us in the (command center)," making judgments on the suitability of targets under the laws of war.
The number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan has far surpassed the number in Iraq in recent years. Some suggest it's because there are too few U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan and the target areas are far removed from the eyes of the international media. North disagreed, saying the Afghan enemy is more easily identified than the insurgents in Iraq, and often comes in larger groups.
"What we see in Afghanistan more often is not the single or four or five insurgents, but larger numbers - 10 or 20 or maybe 30," he said. "We have seen upwards of 100 people on a trail, and so to affect that target area sometimes we'll drop more than one munition. For taking down an enemy compound, we may put nine bombs on the compound."
The general was interviewed his headquarters base. As a condition for visiting the base, journalists are required by the Air Force to withhold the identity of the host country, because of local political sensitivities to the U.S. presence.
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