Strikes’ toll 21, Afghan says

Civil­ians only re­ported vic­tims in 2 Hel­mand air raids

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - MATTHEW LEE

KABUL, Afghanistan — Airstrikes in Afghanistan’s south­ern Hel­mand province have killed 21 civil­ians, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren, a law­maker from the re­gion said Sun­day.

Mo­ham­mad Hashim Alkozai said 13 civil­ians were killed in one strike and eight in an­other. Both were car­ried out late Fri­day in the San­gin dis­trict, where heavy fight­ing is un­der­way be­tween NATO-backed Afghan forces and the Tal­iban. Alkozai said at least five other peo­ple were wounded in the airstrikes.

“In­no­cent peo­ple, women and chil­dren, are the only vic­tims of the airstrikes,” he said, adding that the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions have stoked pub­lic anger.

Omer Zwak, the pro­vin­cial gover­nor’s spokesman, said in­sur­gents fired on Afghan forces from a civil­ian area. He con­firmed that airstrikes had killed civil­ians but could not pro­vide fur­ther in­for­ma­tion.

Alkozai said he has raised con­cerns about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in par­lia­ment and with govern­ment of­fi­cials, but that they have taken no ac­tion.

Afghan forces are strug­gling to com­bat the Tal­iban, who hold sway over nearly half the coun­try and carry out daily at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces.

The terms of peace with the Tal­iban are for the Afghans to de­cide, the Pen­tagon’s top of­fi­cial said early to­day dur­ing an unan­nounced visit to the coun­try.

Pat Shana­han, the re­cently in­stalled act­ing sec­re­tary of de­fense, planned to meet with U.S. com­man­ders and Afghan lead­ers. He said he has no or­ders to re­duce the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops in the coun­try, although of­fi­cials say that is at the top of the Tal­iban’s list of de­mands in ex­ploratory peace ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Shana­han said he is en­cour­aged that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is ex­plor­ing all pos­si­bil­i­ties for end­ing a 17-year war, the long­est in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Thus far the Tal­iban have re­fused to ne­go­ti­ate with the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani, call­ing it il­le­git­i­mate. Washington is try­ing to break that im­passe.

“The Afghans have to de­cide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the U.S., it’s about Afghanistan,” Shana­han told re­porters trav­el­ing with him from Washington.

Trump’s spe­cial en­voy for Afghanistan, mean­while, con­tin­ued his ex­tended diplo­matic tour of Europe and the Mid­dle East to pro­mote a U.S. peace ini­tia­tive.

The State Depart­ment said in a state­ment Sun­day that Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghan Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Zal­may Khalilzad would spend the rest of Fe­bru­ary trav­el­ing to Bel­gium, Ger­many, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pak­istan.

It said the trip is in­tended “to fa­cil­i­tate a peace process that pro­tects U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests and brings all Afghan par­ties to­gether in an in­tra-Afghan di­a­logue through which they can de­ter­mine a path for their coun­try’s fu­ture.”

Khalilzad re­cently fin­ished a sim­i­lar trip dur­ing which his talks with the Tal­iban pro­duced a ten­ta­tive frame­work agree­ment, but he warned that the ne­go­ti­a­tions are far from fin­ished.

In a sep­a­rate de­vel­op­ment, the Afghan in­tel­li­gence ser­vice said it had ar­rested three mem­bers of the Haqqani group, a Tal­iban fac­tion be­lieved to be based in Pak­istan, af­ter two bomb­ings in Kabul killed and wounded dozens of peo­ple.

The Na­tional Direc­torate of Se­cu­rity said the three sus­pects con­fessed to tak­ing part in a truck bomb­ing near the Ger­man Em­bassy in May 2017 that killed at least 90 peo­ple, and a Novem­ber 2018 at­tack that killed five se­cu­rity con­trac­tors, in­clud­ing a Bri­tish na­tional.

The se­cu­rity agency also said it had ar­rested a univer­sity pro­fes­sor and an imam in Kabul who had re­cruited hun­dreds of young peo­ple for the lo­cal af­fil­i­ate of the Is­lamic State ex­trem­ist group, send­ing them to the east­ern Nan­garhar province for train­ing. It said the imam con­fessed that his own nephew had car­ried out a sui­cide bomb­ing in Kabul.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by staff mem­bers of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

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