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US Defense Officials Deny Double Standard Charges Over Accidental Deaths in Afghanistan - 2002-09-18

Senior U.S. defense officials are denying charges the United States places less importance on the accidental deaths of civilians in Afghanistan than on the accidental killings of coalition troops.

It was just last week that the U.S. military decided to bring criminal charges against two American pilots involved in the friendly-fire bombing deaths of four Canadian soldiers.

The decision to bring manslaughter and other charges against the men marked the first time criminal charges had been filed against any pilots in the nearly year-old Afghan war - this, although there have been several other friendly-fire incidents that led to Afghan civilian casualties.

The different treatment has raised questions in Afghanistan about the value the United States places on Afghan lives versus those of its coalition military partners.

But, the Pentagon's top spokesperson, Victoria Clarke, says the United States values all human life. She tells VOA American troops have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. "The people of the United States value all lives, we really do, including those of the Afghan people, and we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties," she said. "It is a real tragedy when a civilian is killed or injured. When civilian casualties do occur, we then go to extraordinary lengths to review what happened, what might have gone wrong, are there procedures we can change so those sorts of things don't happen again."

Another senior Pentagon official tells VOA that had the victims of the mistaken bombing near Kandahar in April been Afghans instead of Canadians, the pilots would still have been criminally charged because they are alleged to have acted negligently.

This official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the actual cases involving Afghan casualties have involved different circumstances - including technical malfunctions of weapons or mistaken identity. The official also says there have been cases in which civilians have suffered because Taleban or al-Qaida fighters have hidden among them.

In perhaps the best known case, U.S. aircraft caused scores of Afghan casualties in the Deh Rawod area north of Kandahar in June. Most of the victims were at a wedding party. But a military investigation found responsibility for the casualties rested with individuals who fired on coalition aircraft from positions among the civilians.

The senior Pentagon official insists the United States is taking special pains not to take sides in Afghanistan, except against the Taleban and al-Qaida and anyone who supports those groups.

He specifically denies suggestions U.S. troops are anti-Pashtun and seeking somehow to break the spirit of Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group.

But the official says it is unfortunate that some Pashtun groups still seem to want to support terrorists - especially in southeastern Afghanistan.

The same official urges some tribal leaders in that area who are concerned about coalition sweeps aimed at capturing Taleban and al-Qaida to cooperate with U.S. commanders.

Some of these tribal leaders have called on the United States to turn over any intelligence information on fugitive fighters in their area and offered to capture them and turn them over to coalition forces.

But the official says there have been cases in which wanted Taleban and al-Qaida have mysteriously disappeared after information was shared in the past with local leaders. He says the fugitives have clearly been receiving assistance.

The official also appeals to local leaders not to block roads or take other steps to impede movements by coalition patrols. The official says those patrols will use force to take down a roadblock, but he says that should not be interpreted as taking sides.

In any event he says the United States has deployed liaison officers with many local groups in an effort to ease communications and to avoid possible misunderstandings.

The official denies the United States is in danger of getting bogged down in Afghanistan, like the Soviet forces who occupied the country in the 1980s.