Wednesday, May 20, 2009

OEF Update, May 20, 2009: Farah Battle Interim Findings Released

Dispatches from the Front

Dispatches from the Front:

KABUL, May 20, 2009 -- A U.S. Central Command investigation team today released its interim findings here after reviewing information on recent events in Afghanistan’s Farah province associated with alleged civilian casualties.

The investigation remains ongoing, officials said.

Investigators said they reviewed weapon-sight video from the aircraft supporting the coalition rescue of Afghan forces in Bala Baluk on May 4 that clearly depicts insurgents entering the buildings which were then targeted in the final strikes of the fight. Combined with audio recordings of the ground commander and aircrew conversations, the investigators were able to confirm that the insurgents fleeing from the firefight were regrouping in several small buildings that subsequently were destroyed.

A review of the physical evidence is inconclusive in determining the exact number of civilian and insurgent casualties, officials said. The investigation team estimates that 60 to 65 Taliban extremists were killed in the engagements, while at least 20 to 30 civilians may have been killed during the fighting. The investigators continue to attempt to better confirm casualty numbers, officials said.

The investigation determined that a large number of Taliban fighters, including non-Afghans, consolidated on Ganj Abad and Grani villages May 3 and demanded payments from villagers. Afghan and coalition troops reported observing at least 300 villagers evacuating the area prior to the fighting.

Reports from Afghan officials indicated the Taliban had executed three former Afghan government officials. In a joint operation, the Afghan National Police, supported by the Afghan National Army, went to the village to drive out the Taliban. As the police approached the village of Garani, they were ambushed by 200 to 300 Taliban fighters. During the initial ambush, two police officers were killed, and a total of five officers were killed during the battle. Outmanned and outgunned, the provincial governor requested help from a coalition quick-reaction force.

The coalition force and an Afghan army unit tried to help the police. At this point, Centcom investigators said, the Taliban launched another attack, firing on the Afghan and coalition forces. A U.S. Navy corpsman was shot in the shoulder while attempting to rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, and an Afghan soldier was shot in the chest as he attempted to charge a Taliban position.

The coalition force used F-18 close-air support to suppress enemy fire from nearby buildings and allow for the rescue of the wounded Afghan first sergeant, who was trapped by heavy Taliban machine-gun and rocket-propelled-grenade fire. The combined coalition-Afghan army team rushed forward, placed the wounded soldier on a stretcher and carried him to safety. He was evacuated by helicopter, and is expected to make a full recovery, officials said.

In coordination with the ground commander, a U.S. B-1 bomber crew fired on enemy firing and gathering positions in buildings and a tree grove. Afghan and U.S. forces remained in the area until the next morning and observed the villagers returning after the fighting had ceased, investigators said.

“We regret the loss of any civilian life and express our condolences to the families who lost loved ones in this fighting with insurgents firing from and regrouping in villagers’ homes,” Army Col. Greg Julian, a coalition spokesman, said. “We continue to work closely with the Afghan national security forces to bring security and progress to Afghanistan, and to do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties.

“We strongly condemn the Taliban for their brutality in deliberately targeting and using civilians as human shields,” he added.

(From a U.S. Forces Afghanistan news release.)

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