Afghan officials said Thursday that a deadly U.S.-led special forces raid on a remote western village last week was based on misleading information provided by a rival clan.
It was the latest twist in a tangled debate over what happened. U.N. officials say the raid killed up to 90 civilians, most of them children. A NATO official said U.S. and Afghan troops were fired on first, touching off a battle of several hours that killed 25 militants and five civilians.
The U.S. government is pressing for a joint U.S.-Afghan probe in hopes of reaching a common conclusion. Two Pentagon officials said Thursday a U.S. review concluded civilian deaths were far fewer than claimed by others. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report had not been made public, said the findings were given to Afghan leaders.
Evidence from all sides has been scant, with no conclusive photos or video emerging to shed light on what happened in Azizabad on Aug. 22. But the claim of high civilian casualties, also made by Afghan officials, is causing new friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.
Karzai has castigated Western commanders over civilian deaths from military operations, saying they create anger among Afghans that the Taliban and other insurgents use as leverage to turn Afghans away from the government.
Claims of civilian deaths can be tricky, however. Relatives of Afghan victims are given condolence payments by Karzai's government and the U.S. military, providing an incentive to make false claims.
Three Afghan officials said Thursday that U.S. commanders were misled into striking Azizabad, a village in Shindand district of Herat province.
They said U.S. special forces troops and Afghan commandos raided the village while hundreds of people were gathered in a large compound for a memorial service honoring a tribal leader, Timor Shah, who was killed eight months ago by a rival clan.
The officials said the raid was aimed at militants supposed to be in the village, but they said the operation was based on faulty information provided by Shah's rival, who they identified as Nader Tawakal. Attempts to locate Tawakal failed.
Afghans targeted in U.S. raids have complained for years of being pursued based solely on information given by other Afghans who sometimes are business rivals, neighbors with a vendetta or simply interested in generic reward money for anti-government militants.
In a report after the raid, Oliver North, a Fox News reporter who accompanied the U.S. special forces unit during the firefight, interviewed an unidentified American major on camera who said credible information had come from a council of local tribal elders indicating a Taliban meeting would be held in the village.
A top NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the results of the U.S. investigation have not been released, said the U.S. and Afghan troops were fired on first when they moved into the village before dawn.
He said combat spanned several hours, during which troops called in airstrikes from Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships and Predator drones.
The clash destroyed or damaged 15 houses, the official said. Afghan officials gave similar accounts of the extent of the damage on the property.
The U.S. and Afghan troops stayed in the village until 8 a.m. and counted 30 dead - 25 militants and five civilians, the NATO official said. The target of the operation, a militant named Mullad Siddiq, was killed, and there were no reports of mass casualties among civilians, the NATO official said.
Reports filed by North, a former Marine who played a key role in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra affair, also said the first shots fired in the clash came from the village. He said the U.S. and Afghan troops received heavy fire from AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns during a 2½-hour battle.
The Afghan military gave similar accounts of the clash soon after the raid, but within hours Afghan civilian officials were saying many innocent civilians had been killed.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, said his investigators concluded 91 people were killed in Azizabad: 59 children, 19 women and 13 men.
Nadery said 76 of the victims belonged to one large, extended family - that of Timor Shah's brother, who is named Reza. Reza was also killed, Nadery said.
Nadery said Reza, whose compound bore the brunt of the attack, had a private security company that worked for the U.S. military at nearby Shindand airport and was thus unlikely to be a Taliban member.
Afghan officials who were part of government investigative commissions claimed Thursday there were no insurgents among the civilians killed.
Nek Mohammad Ishaq, a provincial council member in Herat and a member of both government delegations sent to Azizabad, said that when he visited the village hours after the raid, he counted 76 dead civilians laid on the grounds of the mosque.
More bodies were brought out of the ruins the next day, he said.
"Some of them were decapitated, some did not have a hand. Each body was photographed," Ishaq said.
He said photographs and video of the victims were with Afghanistan's secretive intelligence service. The spokesman for the service, Sayed Ansari, would not confirm or deny that officials held such evidence. He said they would not share such material with journalists in any case.
Ishaq said the investigative commissions were provided with a detailed list of victims' names, genders and ages.
As his delegation sat with village elders on the floor of the mosque, Ishaq said, a man walked in holding a handkerchief, which he wanted everyone to see. In it were body parts of children: fingers, bits of hand and feet, Ishaq said.
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