KABUL, Afghanistan — A night raid by NATO-led forces killed six civilians in the relatively peaceful northern Afghan province of Sar-e-Pul, local officials said Tuesday, but a statement from the U.S.-led coalition said the dead were Taliban insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
The disagreement adds to the debate surrounding night raids, which have become a centerpiece of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan as coalition forces seek to kill or capture Taliban supporters. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked the International Security Assistance Force, the official name for the coalition, to halt the raids, one of which last month resulted in the death of a Karzai cousin in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
The ISAF statement said Monday night's raid in Sar-e-Pul had targeted the Taliban's provincial shadow governor, whom it described as a "key power broker in the north" with ties "to foreign fighter facilitation and suicide training camps operating in the province."
The ISAF statement didn't identify the shadow governor by name and didn't say whether the force had succeeded in killing or capturing him. It said that one insurgent had been killed in the raid itself, and that "several other insurgents" had been captured.
While leaving the area, the statement said, the troops saw "several Taliban members take cover in a ditch just outside of town. The security force isolated the ditch, calling for all insurgents to exit peacefully. The insurgents, armed with AK-47s, engaged the security force. The force returned fire, resulting in several insurgents killed."
Sayed Anwar Rahmati, the Karzai-appointed governor of the province, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy that villagers from Sayad, where the raid took place, denied that the dead men were Taliban and said only one of the captured men was an armed insurgent.
"Around 11 p.m. on Monday night, foreign forces raided a house," he said. "As a result, six young men were killed and four others were detained. According to our intelligence, only one of the four detained is an armed Taliban insurgent."
The governor didn't address ISAF claims that the men who were killed had opened fire first. He said villagers had come to him to complain about the incident. He also said that Sayad, about nine miles west of the provincial capital, also known as Sar-e-Pul, is an "insecure" area and that both local Taliban and Taliban-allied foreign fighters "are seen in this district."
Rahmati worried that village anger over the raid would feed already hostile feelings over the burning of a Quran last month by a Florida pastor. Recent demonstrations in several provinces sparked by the Quran burning have left at least 18 people dead, including eight United Nations workers who died when their compound was stormed in Mazar-i-Sharif.
"Villagers from the district wanted to stage a demonstration to condemn the killings," Rahmati said. "We managed to convince them not to do so, because the Quran-burning issue is still hot in this region, and there are some circles trying to exploit the situation for their own interests."
The raid was one of seven that ISAF reported had taken place throughout Afghanistan Monday.
Night raids have been a source of friction between Karzai and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Many of the raids are conducted independently by foreign troops without prior coordination with Afghan security forces.
The list of raids gone wrong is a lengthy one, including the raid that killed Karzai's cousin last month, a Christmas Eve raid in Kabul that killed two guards employed by the Tiger International security company, and a raid last August that killed three brothers from a family in Maidan Wardak province.
The U.N. recently reported that 80 civilians died in ISAF night raids during 2010.
Despite Karzai's demand that the raids be halted, ISAF insists that the raids have played an important role in weakening the Taliban.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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