More than 50 people were killed in Afghanistan early Friday when a NATO fighter jet attacked the position of insurgents who had hijacked two tanker trucks filled with fuel near Kunduz. A German reconstruction team based in the northern city made the official request for NATO air support in the early hours of Friday morning, a German army spokesperson told news agency DPA.
Reports were conflicting on Friday over whether the attack had resulted in civilian casualties. In the past, civilians have repeatedly been the victims of NATO operations -- angering Afghans and fomenting hostilities over the presence of foreign troops in the country. However, a spokesperson for Germany's military forces, the Bundeswehr, said only insurgents had been hit. "According to our knowledge at present, no civilian was injured," said a spokesperson for Germany's Defense Ministry. He added that the safety of civilians was the military's utmost priority.
However, the incident is still being investigated. The spokesman said the commander involved was "downright cool-headed and anything but a risk-taker." He added that the post was the most challenging of any Bundeswehr deployment at the moment, and the "forces deployed there are the best-trained and are completely in the know in terms of what they are and aren't allowed to do."
He said no ground troops had been involved in the attack. It was the largest strike to have taken place in the northern region of Afghanistan where German troops are at present . A NATO jet located the two tanker trucks along a river. "After it was determined that the insurgents were there, the local ISAF commander ordered the air strike," ISAF spokeswoman Christine Sidenstricker told reporters. "The tanker trucks were destroyed and numerous insurgents killed." ISAF is also assuming all of the dead were insurgents.
Dozens of Civilian Deaths?
Officials in Afghanistan, however, have said dozens of civilians were killed. The provincial governor, Mohammed Omar, has claimed that 90 people died in the explosions. Haji Amanullah, a resident of the village of Omar Kheil where the strike took place, told German news agency DPA: "More than 150 people were killed or injured." He said his 20-year-old cousin had been killed.
Afghan police are claiming around 40 civilians were killed in the attack. A spokesperson for the regional government in Kunduz, Mahbuhullah Sajedi, said "a small number" of civilians had been killed, including children who had tried to tap fuel from the tankers, which had gotten stuck before the attack.
On Friday, Aghan President Hamid Karzai sad he was "deeply saddened" and sent a delegation to investigate the incident. Officials in his office said 90 people had been killed or injured. "Targeting civilian men and women is not acceptable," he said.
The United Nations is also calling on NATO to investigate the attack. Peter Galbraith, the deputy head the UN mission in Afghanistan said he was "deeply concerned." He added: "Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an air strike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present." He further stated that the UN mission in Afghanistan would also investigate.
'We Will Immediately Investigate this Incident'
New NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen conceded that there could have been civilian casualties as a result of the air attack. "Certainly, a number of Taliban were killed," he said on Friday in Brussels, according to Agence France-Presse. "There is also the possibility of civilian casualties but it is not yet clear."
An investigation was being conducted in the area and Rasmussen added that, "the Afghan people should know that we are clearly committed to protecting them and that we will fully and immediately investigate this incident."
Attending a meeting of European Union (EU) foreign ministers in Stockholm, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy head, said civilian deaths were regrettable. "I think it's been very dramatic ... it's a very, very sad event," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
'A Horrifying Price'
Before the meeting of foreign ministers, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also expressed regret about the deaths of more than 50 people in the NATO attack. "It's an ongoing conflict, and there are people dying every day, and that needs to be reduced as much as possible," he told reporters.
In Germany there was heavy criticism from the Network of the German Peace Movement, an umbrella organization for various German human rights and peace groups. "If information about this battle for the hijacked tankers near Kunduz is confirmed, then the Bundeswehr is responsible for a massacre," said peace activist Mannfred Stenner, head of the network. According to Stenner the bombing killed more than 50 Taliban fighters and around 40 civilians. "That is a horrifying price for a few gallons of stolen gas," he concluded.
A spokesperson for the German Defense Ministry said Friday that Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of the conservative Christian Democratic Union would not be making any statement yet. Details on the incident were still incomplete. In reply to a question put to him during the press conference, as to whether the Bundeswehr would continue to maintain that there was no war in Afghanistan, the spokesperson said, "this is about a stabilization effort. It is a robust stabilization effort, and as such, necessarily includes some fighting."