U.S. hits Afghan wedding; bride and 36 others said killed

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The U.S. military said Wednesday it was investigating a report that an American airstrike hit a wedding party in southern Afghanistan, killing dozens of civilians and prompting new pleas from President Hamid Karzai that foreign forces try harder to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants.

“We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes,” Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace, speaking hours after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election. “This is my first demand of the new president of the United States — to put an end to civilian casualties.”

The latest report of civilian fatalities in connection with Western military operations came from Kandahar province, which is the scene of near-constant fighting between foreign forces and the Taliban.

Western news agencies quoted people from the remote village of Wech Baghtu on Tuesday as saying that an airstrike Monday destroyed a residential compound where a wedding was being celebrated, killing about 37 people, most of them women and children. The bride was said to be among the injured.

The report could not be immediately confirmed.

Civilian casualties have become an inflammatory issue in Afghanistan, particularly after a sharp dispute between Western military commanders and Afghan officials over an American airstrike in the western province of Herat on Aug. 22.

Afghan authorities, backed by the United Nations, said about 90 civilians died in that strike, many of them women and children. U.S. officials initially said five civilians had been killed. But after reinvestigating the incident, the American military acknowledged that 33 civilians were believed to have died in the raid.

The initial U.S. denials infuriated many Afghans.

Karzai has made a number of highly emotional public appeals for coalition troops to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties. After the Herat incident, the NATO-led force instituted new procedures meant to provide greater protection to civilians.

The U.S. military said the reports of the latest deaths in Kandahar province were being investigated.

“Though facts are unclear at this point, we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan and to avoid circumstances where noncombatant civilians are placed at risk,” Cmdr. Jeff Bender, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“More than 1,200 Afghan civilians have died violently so far this year, according to Afghan officials and human rights groups. Most were killed in insurgent attacks such as suicide bombings, but accidental strikes by foreign forces account for hundreds of the deaths, Afghan authorities assert.

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