Afghan Recovery Report: New Civilian Death Claims in Helmand Sweep

IWPR told four more locals killed as coalition fights Taleban in Operation Moshtarak.

By Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Elyas Dayee in Helmand (ARR No. 353, 20-Feb-10)

People in Marja district in Helmand province, where a western and Afghan military operation aims to oust the Taleban, say several civilians have been killed in addition to the 12 acknowledged by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF.

They also say that the fighting has caused hunger because people cannot leave their homes to fetch food.

The Helmand provincial governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, visited the area on the fifth day of the operation to see for himself. "People asked me to provide them with food ... as the operation goes forward, many mines have been planted, so it takes time to clear them. However, we are working on a plan to send food to the people quickly," he told journalists.

The people of Marja would soon be able to go about their regular business, he said.

Shortly after Operation Moshtarak (Together) began in Helmand province on February 13, Defence Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar Minister and the commander of ISAF and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, hailed the operation as a success.

McChrystal said the foreign forces were acting in support of Afghan forces, who were in the front line of the operation. Wardak called on the Taleban to lay down its weapons and join a peace process.

While many in Marja fled as the coalition forces tried to oust the insurgents, large numbers also stayed.

Wardak said the operation was likely to last about a month. "We will not be able to eliminate all the problems in a short time. However, we promise the people of Marja that we will pave the way for them to live a better life," he told reporters.

Atmar accused the Taleban of using the population as a human shield, "The opposition have used the people as a shield and there have been some civilian casualties. A complete brigade of the police will go to Marja soon in order to ensure security, help tribal elders prepare for better governance."

Although the government says it has tried to avoid civilian casualties, people in the area are angry at the conduct of the operation and have given details of incidents in which at least four were killed.

Harun, who spoke to IWPR in the hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, said two of his brothers had been wounded in the fighting and one of their wives killed by a shell from a coalition tank. He had brought the men for treatment.

He said the incident began when the Taleban opened fire at the western forces from a location 100 metres away from their house. He said that his brothers were shot at and wounded as they ran from the house because they were afraid it would be shelled.

"My wounded brother Fazel Omar got married six months ago. When he was wounded, his wife came out of the house and ran towards her husband, but [they] shot at her from their tank and [killed] her," he said.

He added angrily, "That moment was very difficult for me because I could not go out of the house; I could not take my wounded brothers to the hospital and could not bring my dead sister-in-law's body home."

In a second incident in Qari Sada village, a rocket reportedly fired by coalition forces hit a house. Relatives traveled to Bost Hospital in Lashkar Gah to accompany the bodies of two young women.

Most were too grief-stricken to speak to the media but Gula Jan told IWPR, "My two little sisters were martyred by the foreigners' rocket and I will not reconcile with the infidels until I can avenge my sisters."

There were reports of a fourth civilian fatality in Karwa Square. A driver living there is said to have been killed by fire from foreign forces when he left his home to buy food.

Ahmad, his son said, "The body of my father was left inside our home for two days because the foreigners did not let us out to bury the body in the cemetery. We were scared of being killed. They are cruel and the infidels have no sympathy for us."

Asked about these four deaths, an ISAF spokesman in Afghanistan said, "We have no information that verifies these incidents."

ISAF has reported 12 civilians killed in Marja when a rocket hit a house. It was initially said to have been a system error. However, officials in Afghanistan have been quoted as saying the system functioned correctly but the house that was destroyed had been used by the Taleban to launch attacks.

Meanwhile, local people are fearful that more of them will be caught up in the fighting.

One resident of Marja district, Zaher Jan, said on the phone, "They governor announces on the radio that bombardments will not take place, but [they are] going on as we speak. If these bombardments are not stopped, there will be many civilian casualties."

Taleban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi said insurgents were resisting the Afghan and foreign forces and that more than 2,000 had gone to Marja for the purpose.

A regional commander of the Taleban in Marja district, Mullah Osman, said, "We have planted mines everywhere in the area. We have warned the people not to come out of their houses. If they have any urgent matters, they should tell us about it. Our goal is jihad and the fight against the infidels."

He denied the insurgents were using civilians for their own protection. "We do not use civilians as a shield like the government and foreign forces. The people's life and protection of their honour is our task," he said.

Afghan General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of the 205 Atal Army Corps in Kandahar, confirmed that the area had been heavily planted with mines. "There is no resistance from the Taleban. There is only one problem, which is the problem of mines. For this reason, the operation may take longer," he said.

Another Marja resident, Dr Ahmad Ahmadi, told IWPR on the phone, "There are thousands of mines hidden here. It is impossible for ordinary life to return to Marja unless these mines are cleared. The Taleban have planted 35 mines 200 metres from my house alone."

Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Elyas Dayee are IWPR-trained reporters in Helmand.