Obama: We Want To Stop Civilian Casualties

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, makes a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) AP

President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that the United States is making "every effort to avoid civilian casualties as we help the Afghan government combat our common enemy."

The United States has come under criticism this week after Afghan officials said dozens of civilians died as a result of an air raid conducted by American forces Monday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday the Obama administration "deeply, deeply" regrets the loss of innocent life.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, however, said Wednesday that the military has come to "distinctly different conclusions" about how the civilians died, though he declined to offer specifics.

The president's comment came after he hosted what he called an "extraordinarily productive" White House meeting with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two neighboring nations where crucial U.S. security concerns are at stake.

Mr. Obama and his foreign policy and national security team met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari separately in the Oval Office and then together in the Cabinet Room.

Afterward, Mr. Obama pledged a sustained and lasting commitment to support democratically elected sovereign governments in both countries.

"We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaida and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future," the president said following the meetings. "And to achieve that goal, we must deny them the space to threaten the Pakistani, Afghan, or American people."

In a notable showing of support for both men, Mr. Obama said Karzai and Zardari both "fully appreciate the seriousness of the threats that we face" from extremists and are committed to confronting it.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, the president's national security adviser, said following the meeting that Mr. Obama told Karzai about the U.S. regrets concerning civilian casualties with "great sympathy." He said Karzai was moved by the statement of condolences.

Jones said the United States will try to determine what happened in Monday's bombing and seek to ensure that it doesn't occur again.

Earlier, Pakistan attacked Taliban militants with helicopter gunships and mortar rounds in a northwestern region as residents hunkered down in their homes ahead of an expected offensive in the extremist stronghold, witnesses and officials said.

The army action in the Swat Valley was expected to please Washington, which has been urging Pakistan to crack down on militants blamed for rising violence at home and in Afghanistan. But it was unclear whether the stretched military planned the kind of sustained operation likely needed to defeat the insurgents.

The president is pressing Zardari to stand up to the threat of a wider war by Taliban and al Qaeda forces inside Pakistan. He's also seeking broader cooperation between Zardari and Karzai, who blames the Taliban's resurgence in his country on its havens across the border.

The U.S. needs Zardari to rein in the militants and guarantee his nation's nuclear weapons are safe from terrorist hands, CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan reports.

But the U.S. is dealing with a weak president in a country more accustomed to military dictatorships.

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Since fighting broke out Tuesday in Pakistan, thousands of men, women and children have fled the region's town of Mingora and surrounding districts, fearing an imminent major military operation. The government said it believes refugees could reach 500,000.

"It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere," said Laiq Zada, a 33-year old who fled the valley late Tuesday and was now in government run tent camp out of the danger zone. "We have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else."

The clashes followed the collapse of a 3-month-old truce in Swat that was widely criticized in the West as a surrender to the militants, who had fought the army to a standstill in two years of clashes that saw hundreds of civilian casualties.
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