KABUL, Afghanistan -- A disagreement between the NATO force and President Hamid Karzai over the use of airstrikes in civilian areas of Afghanistan appeared to deepen Tuesday, with the Afghan leader insisting that under terms of a new accord with the Western military, the aerial bombardment of homes was “absolutely banned.”
The NATO force said over the weekend it had agreed to refrain from airstrikes on residential structures as a general rule, but that it reserved the right to use such attacks as a last-ditch measure: in self-defense when other options were not available.
Karzai had complained bitterly following a U.S. airstrike last week in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan that killed at least 18 civilians, nearly all of them women and children, as Western and Afghan troops were pursuing a Taliban commander.
“As far as we are concerned ... an agreement has been reached clearly with NATO that no bombardment of civilian homes for any reason is allowed,” Karzai told reporters at a nationally televised news conference in the capital. “They cannot use any airplane to bomb Afghan homes, even when they are under attack.”
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force did not immediately respond to queries about the seemingly differing interpretations of the accord.
[Updated, 8:22 a.m. June 12: Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the alliance, later repeated the Western military's pledge to refrain from using air-delivered munitions against civilian dwellings "unless it is a question of self-defense for our troops on the ground." He added that strikes on civilian dwellings constituted a "very small percentage" of NATO's air operations.]
Earlier, Karzai had said that unilateral airstrikes on residential compounds violated the terms of a major security pact signed earlier this year with the United States, which was described by American officials as pivotal to efforts to wind down the Western combat role and hand over fighting duties to the Afghan police and soldiers.
Also Tuesday, Afghan officials said a widely reported assertion by the governor of a northern province that a pregnant woman and her unborn child had died when an ambulance en route to the hospital hit a roadside bomb on Monday was erroneous. Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi said the woman had survived and given birth to her child, who also survived.
The ministry had said five members of the same family, including two women and two children, had died in the attack, and Sar-e-Pul Gov. Abdul Jabar Haqben identified the pregnant woman who was being rushed to the hospital as one of the fatalities.
The governor and his spokesman did not return calls on Tuesday requesting information as to how the mistaken identity had occurred.
Sar-e-Pul, northwest of Kabul, has been roiled in recent days by a Taliban-engineered jailbreak after which more than a dozen prisoners, some of them insurgents, remained at large. The provincial police chief and prison director were fired in the wake of last week’s mass escape, in which most of those who tried to flee were speedily recaptured or killed.
Meanwhile, violence flared elsewhere in northern Afghanistan, where officials in Balkh province said a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in a bazaar district. Ahmad Muneer Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial government, said three civilians were killed, including a child. Afghan national police, however, put the death toll at two. Their fatality count also included a child.
-- Laura King and Hashmat Baktash
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai talks with journalists during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday. Credit: S. Sabawoon / EPA