At least 14 civilians have died in bombings of suspected Taliban compounds as part of the Canadian-led offensive against insurgents in the notorious district of Panjwai, according to local officials and villagers.
The military has touted the extra precautions that went into the month-long planning of Operation Medusa, which was designed to avoid such incidents. Strategists even sacrificed the element of surprise, warning people to leave the district in the days before the foreign troops advanced.
And yet villagers in at least three parts of the battlefield reported that a number of civilians have been killed in almost a week of relentless bombing, artillery barrages and strafing runs.
The clearest information comes from witnesses and local officials in Ghaljain, a tiny cluster of mud-walled compounds near the village of Zangabad, roughly 35 kilometres southwest of Kandahar.
Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member closely allied with the foreign troops in Kandahar, said a jet fighter bombed three compounds in that area at 4 p.m. Sunday. The blasts killed seven Taliban fighters, he said, but also killed an elderly man plus 13 women and children.
In response to questions from a journalist, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's International Security Assistance Force announced an investigation into the Zangabad bombing yesterday. The air strikes were a response to a fierce firefight in which Taliban fired from inside the compounds, according to an ISAF statement.
"The fact that the insurgents were using the compounds as defensive positions, and that civilians had already been advised to leave the area through media, leaflet drops and shuras [meetings] makes it less likely that there were civilians involved," ISAF said. "However, ISAF takes such reports very seriously, particularly as we go to great lengths to ensure the safety of civilians, and therefore a further investigation has been initiated to determine if there is any evidence of a civilian presence at that time."
Locals, however, said they were starting to pick through the wreckage themselves on Sunday, beginning the traditional process of recovering the dead and reburying them quickly as required under Islam, when at least one fighter jet returned to hit them again.
"We helped to drag the bodies out of the mud," a villager said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "But then more bombs landed, and those people were killed. Now nobody wants to recover the bodies, because we are afraid."
The bombing added to the flood of villagers fleeing the war-torn district, where tribal elders estimate about 1,500 families have been displaced.
Besides the well-documented bombing near Zangabad, there were several other unconfirmed incidents as Canadian troops and their allies continued to strike Taliban positions in the district. Only a handful of injured people had reached Kandahar's Mirwais Hospital yesterday. Doctors said their head wounds, shrapnel cuts and other injuries were consistent with blasts and explosions.
"Very powerful booms, big bombs hit the village," said Noor Ahmed, 24, a farmer, who saw explosions on the northern outskirts of Panjwai district Monday. Five days into the operation, neither NATO nor the Canadian contingent in Kandahar has issued any update on the overall number of civilian casualties.
In the absence of information, some villagers sympathetic to the insurgents are spreading rumours about large numbers of women and children killed by NATO bombs and Canadian artillery.