KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO early Friday morning unleashed an air attack on two fuel tank trucks hijacked by insurgents, an assault that caused dozens of deaths in northern Kunduz province and reignited the controversy over civilian war deaths here.
While there is a dispute over the extent of civilian casualties and uncertainty about the exact death toll, the attack quickly emerged as a high-profile concern at a time when international forces are trying to showcase a new combat approach to reduce civilian injuries and deaths.
The governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, said about 90 people died, including up to 60 armed insurgents and about 30 civilians who, he said, supported the Taliban and had congregated about the trucks to obtain fuel. Omar also noted that several children of the two insurgent truck drivers were in the cabs, and died in the attack.
Gen. Abdul Razaq Yaqoubi, police chief of the province, said the death toll appeared to be fewer than 60 people from the airstrike with about 12 suffering burns as the fuel tankers exploded. He claimed that all the dead were insurgents, including several Chechen fighters.
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NATO official on Friday said the attack was carried out against a "large number of insurgents," but didn't give an estimate on casualties.
The attack occurred 10 miles south of the city of Kunduz in an area assigned to German forces, who work there in cooperation with Afghan military officials.
NATO officials say that the trucks were stolen about two hours before the attack. They maintain that the trucks were put under surveillance, and it appeared that no civilians were in the vicinity at the time the airstrike was approved.
The Associated Press reported Friday that German commanders opted for the airstrike because the vehicles were seized near their base, possibly for a suicide attack against the German camp, according to deputy Defense Minister Thomas Kossendey.
Kunduz provincial officials said that the hijacked vehicles got stuck in the mud at the edge of the rain-swollen Kunduz River as hijackers attempted to transport the fuel into a neighboring province. Then, according to Omar, the governor, some villagers approached the trucks in hopes of obtaining fuel.
The bombing came during a volatile period in the war in Afghanistan, with the Taliban-led insurgency seeking to expand its power in the country as the effort to select a new president has been slowed by allegations of voting fraud. The Taliban have recently made inroads in the Kunduz region
For NATO forces, the summer has seen some fierce fighting and a sharp increase in casualties as they try to strengthen the counterinsurgency campaign.
In a July 6 tactical directive, the commander of the international forces, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said that the conflict in Afghanistan would be won by gaining the support of the people.
"I expect leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close air support ... against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties in accordance with this guidance," he said in the directive. "Commanders must weigh the gain of using CAS (close air support) against the cost of civilian casualties, which in the long run make mission success more difficult and turn the Afghan people against us. "
The new attack once again puts the spotlight on the human toll of aerial warfare.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force "will do whatever is necessary to help the community, including medical assistance and evacuation as requested," Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman, said Friday. "ISAF regrets any unnecessary loss of human life, and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused to our Afghan friends."
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan also released a statement, noting reports of civilian casualties that would be investigated, and sending "condolences to those families who lost loved ones."
Kunduz province, one of northern Afghanistan's nine provinces, is dominated by ethnic minorities who traditionally opposed these provinces. Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, these areas have been relatively secure, until recently.
Today, however, Kunduz province has emerged as a more strategic area that includes a stretch of new NATO supply route from Central Asia. Insurgent activity has been on the rise in recent months as the Taliban and al Qaida-linked foreign fighters have staged hit-and-run attacks, bombings and rocket strikes on German, Belgian and Hungarian forces in Kunduz and neighboring Baglan provinces.
The Taliban have beefed up their presence in that area as well as other parts of Kunduz province in recent months, including the site of the air attack.
Omar said he considered the area where the trucks got stuck part of the Taliban zone.
"This is an area under Taliban control, and we cannot go there," Omar said Friday
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this story from Afghanistan.)
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