U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan on Aug. 22 killed 33 civilians, far more than the military had acknowledged before, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey released a statement summarizing the findings of a Central Command investigation and asserting that despite the civilian deaths, U.S. forces involved in the attack in western Herat province had acted on credible intelligence, in self-defense and in line with rules of engagement.
Dempsey said the probe found that in addition to the civilians killed in the attack on a suspected Taliban compound, 22 insurgents died. The U.S. military originally claimed that five to seven civilians had died.
The Afghan government and U.N. have said the civilian toll was 90 from the operation, which started with a ground raid by U.S. and Afghan forces.
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The issue of civilian deaths has caused outrage among Afghans and strained relations with foreign forces there to help fight the insurgency. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned U.S. and NATO for years to stop killing civilians on bombing runs against militants, saying the deaths undercut his government and the international mission.
On Sept. 2, less than two weeks after the raid in the village of Azizabad, NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan issued a revised order meant to govern the tactics and procedures followed by U.S. forces when engaging in air and ground fights against the insurgents.
Several days after that, McKiernan ordered a second U.S. investigation into the deaths because pictures and video images surfaced that appeared to show 30 to 40 victims laid out in a village mosque, including at least 10 dead children.
Zemeri Bashary, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the new U.S. report but that the Afghan government stood by its original findings.
In a trip to Afghanistan last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the people of Afghanistan his “personal regrets” over the civilian deaths and said he would try to improve the accuracy of air operations.