New measures to avoid Afghan civilian deaths in NATO offensive
New measures, including a ban on the use of heavy artillery, are to be put in place to avoid civilian casualties after locals died in NATO's biggest-ever operation in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan minister said Monday, DPA reported.
Thousands of Afghan, US and British troops began the eight-year-war's biggest offensive against the main Taliban redoubt in the southern province of Helmand at the weekend.
The operation aims to extend the writ of the Afghan government to Marjah, the main Taliban bastion in the region, and win the hearts and minds of locals by starting reconstruction in the area.
But the NATO-Afghan plan suffered a damaging blow when two rockets fired by US forces veered off course and struck a house around 600 metres from their intended Taliban target, killing 12 civilians, according to NATO.
"In order to avoid such incidents, we decided that heavy artillery will not be used," Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghan Interior Minister, told a press conference in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand.
NATO forces had earlier said that they had suspended the use of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, from which the two rockets were fired.
Atmar, who was flanked by Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and NATO's commander in the country, US general Stanley McChrystal, said that other measures would include consultations with local elders about upcoming operations.
"For the safety of Marjah's people, we will launch a radio programme so that they can have timely information on what they should do to save their lives," the minister said.
The civilian deaths that took place on the second day of Operation Mushtarak, or "together," pushed McChrystal to formally apologize and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to order an investigation.
Atmar said that the initial report from the ongoing joint investigation showed that three of the dead were "enemy fighters."
Hundreds of local residents of Marjah have fled to the provincial capital Lashkargah, but most of its 80,000 inhabitants remained amid assurances from NATO officials that measures would be put in place to avoid civilian casualties.
While Afghan and NATO military commanders on the ground claimed early success in Marjah and the neighboring district of Nad Ali, Afghan security chiefs on Monday called on Taliban fighters to surrender and avoid civilian deaths and destruction in the area.
"Today our message to them is that your best option is to take advantage of the Afghan peace and reconciliation programme," Atmar said. "There is no way you can win there. The Afghan people are determined to win. If they (Taliban) choose to take advantage of this programme, we will definitely respond positively."
Atmar said that unconfirmed reports indicated that some of the Taliban had crossed over the border into Pakistan, while Wardak said that they estimated that hundreds were still besieged in the area, which is the biggest opium-producing region in the country.
As part of their tactics, Taliban militants seem to avoid putting up resistance at the beginning, regroup and then begin their guerrilla-style war once the bulk of their opponent's forces leave the area.
Wardak said this time he had a different message for the militants. "I want give this message to the enemies that this time we will not go out of this area, we will remain under any conditions and we will definitely provide security in the area," he said.
The operation, which has mobilized 15,000 Afghan and NATO forces, is a first test of the new US strategy to turn the tide of the eight-year war. US President Barack Obama increased the US troop commitment by another 30,000 personnel, bringing the US presence to 98,000 soldiers.
The US and NATO together have around 113,000 troops in the country, and other NATO countries have pledged to send up to 7,000 more troops by this summer.
Speaking at the same press conference, McChrystal praised the collaboration of joint forces, saying, "While all this is an Afghan-led operation, I think it highlights the special relationship that we have developed that I am very proud of."
Two British troops and one US Marine have been killed in the past three days since the start of the operation, while combined forces killed up to 27 militants, officials said.
The Afghan and NATO officials said that there were periodic attacks by insurgents, but roadside bombs and booby-traps were the main threats that had slowed the advance of forces moving through the newly occupied areas.