Afghan president visits victims of U.S. air strikes

By Sharafuddin Sharafyar

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday met grieving relatives of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes in western Farah province and confirmed an official death toll of 140, a senior official said.

Karzai, who faces a presidential election in August, has taken a strong stand on the deaths amid mounting public anger about the cost to ordinary Afghans of fighting a strengthening Taliban insurgency.

He has called for an end to all aerial bombings and told a crowd in Farah that he would ensure aid for survivors and work to prevent the loss of more innocent lives, Farah governor Rohul Amin told Reuters.

The toll announced by the Afghan Defence Ministry last week makes the bombing the deadliest incident for civilians since U.S. forces began fighting the Taliban in 2001. It has fuelled public anger over the presence of foreign forces.

"I know all the facts about you, and I am here to express my deepest condolences in the loss of lives," Amin quoted Karzai as telling a crowd of around 2,500 in the provincial capital.

The U.S. military has acknowledged civilians died but put the total at less than 100, saying the rapid burial of victims, many in mass graves, made it impossible to give an exact tally.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that an initial investigation suggested commanders had taken considerable care in applying air power. It also said the U.S. military was analyzing video footage of the incident.

"The initial indication ... looks as though the close air support was very measured and that there was a great deal of care to ensure that it was proportional to the threat faced by the forces on the ground," spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon.

KARZAI MEETS VILLAGERS

Karzai later met with 14 representatives from the two villages hit by the air strikes. They travelled to the provincial capital Farah City to meet him because their homes are in an insecure area where Taliban militants are active, Amin said.

Karzai promised to rebuild houses destroyed in the attacks and pay for the families of all victims to make the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, a requirement for all Muslims who are physically and financially able.

The government said last week it had paid relatives of those killed the equivalent of about $2,000, and gave $1,000 to the families of another 25 people who were badly wounded.

Air strikes were called in after U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces became involved in a fierce battle with Taliban militants. The strikes hit houses that villagers say were filled with women and children.

A copy of the government's list of the names, ages and father's names of each of the 140 dead, which was obtained by Reuters, showed that 93 of those killed were children, 25 were adult women and 22 were adult males.

The Taliban, toppled from power by U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001, have been gathering strength in recent years, particularly in the south and east of the country.

U.S. commanders are rushing in thousands of reinforcements in what Washington considers a make-or-break year for a war it now views as its main security priority.

(Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison, Paul Tait and Eric Walsh)

Article Published: 19/05/2009