(New York) - The United States should abide by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s call for immediate investigations into US military operations on March 4 and 5 that resulted in high loss of civilian life, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 4, 2007, insurgents in a civilian van carried out a suicide bomb attack on a US military convoy on the Jalalabad highway in eastern Nangarhar province. No US personnel or Afghan civilians were reported killed in the suicide attack. Witnesses told journalists and Afghan officials that US forces, while speeding away from the attack, shot at vehicles and pedestrians along at least a six-mile stretch of highway. At least eight and as many as 16 civilians were killed, and approximately 25 others were wounded. The dead included a woman and two children.
“Suicide bombers in Afghanistan regularly pose as civilians, but that doesn’t give coalition forces carte blanche to respond with indiscriminate fire,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the insurgents violate the laws of war doesn’t absolve the US and its allies of the need to observe them.”
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the US military is attempting to control information about the March 4 incident. An Associated Press photojournalist and two television cameramen from APTN and Ariana, a local broadcaster, said that US forces confiscated their cameras and deleted digital images and footage they had taken that day of civilian casualties.
The day of the incident, the US military stated that the suicide attack was part of a “complex ambush” by insurgent forces that “was wholly or partly responsible for the civilian casualties.”
In a second incident, on March 5, 2007 in Kapisa province north of Kabul, US forces responded to an insurgent rocket attack with an aerial bombing in which at least nine civilians, including five women and three children, were killed. A US military spokesperson said today that after an outpost in Kapisa came under attack, coalition forces observed two armed men flee into a civilian compound. Coalition forces dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on the compound. The US spokesperson did not state whether the suspected insurgent fighters were killed in the attack.
“Insurgents shouldn’t hide among civilians to protect themselves, but the fact remains that coalition forces need to take better precautions to prevent needless civilian deaths,” said Adams.
Human Rights Watch said that the US military should ensure that meaningful investigations take place in both cases. Appropriate action, including disciplinary measures and prosecution, should be undertaken as warranted. Human Rights Watch welcomed the Afghan government’s intention to participate in these investigations.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed or injured in insurgent-related violence since January 2006. Many of these casualties were the result of insurgent attacks, but US-led coalition and NATO operations and patrols were also responsible for a significant number of civilian casualties in 2006.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, all parties to a conflict are prohibited from conducting attacks that target civilians, from using means and methods of attack that cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, and from carrying out attacks that are expected to cause loss of civilian life that is disproportionate to expected military gain. Armed forces must take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians and to verify that targets are military objectives.