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U.S. finds mistakes in deadly Afghan airstrikes

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From Reuters

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. military investigation has uncovered mistakes in air strikes that killed dozens of civilians in western Afghanistan last month, according to a U.S. military official.

The official confirmed a report in The New York Times on Wednesday that said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if U.S. air crews and ground troops had followed strict rules to prevent civilian casualties.

“We do not have an issue with the accuracy of the story,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the results of the investigation have not yet been announced.

The incident in early May stoked long-standing tensions between Afghans and foreign troops over civilian casualties.

Afghan officials put the civilian death toll from the air strikes in Farah province as high as 140 while an Afghan human rights watchdog put the total at 97. The rights group said no more than two Taliban fighters were killed.

The U.S. military, by contrast, has said 20-35 civilians were among 80-95 people killed, most of them Taliban fighters who used the civilians as human shields.

The investigation was ordered by General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters that oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East and into Central and South Asia.

The Times, citing an unnamed senior military official, said the investigation had concluded that one U.S. aircraft was cleared to attack Taliban fighters, but circled back and did not reconfirm the target before dropping bombs, leaving open the possibility that the militants had fled or civilians had entered the target area in the intervening few minutes.

A compound where militants were massing for a possible counterattack against U.S. and Afghan troops was struck in violation of rules that required a more imminent threat to justify putting high-density village dwellings at risk, it said.

“In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement,” the Times quoted its source as saying.

The New York Times story did not say how many civilian casualties may have been avoided if the correct procedures had been followed.

The Pentagon declined to comment, saying it had not yet received the Central Command report.

(Reporting by Andrew Gray; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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