At least 60 civilians killed in NATO operation: Afghan officials

Two Afghan officials and a village resident say at least 60 civilians died in a NATO operation in a volatile region of southern Afghanistan earlier this week.

NATO operations in Afghanistan's volatile south left dozens of Afghan civilians dead earlier this week, according toAfghan government officials and a village resident.

Bismallah Afghanmal, a provincial council member, told the Associated Press an estimated 80 to 85 civilians were killed in the operation, while Karim Jan, a villager, said 60 to 70 civilians died. Another government official, who declined to give his name, told the Associated Press that at least 60 civilians were killed.

Inthe House of Commonson Thursday, NDP Leader Jack Layton seized on the report as more evidence of the government's mishandling of the Afghan mission.

"With only one dollar going to aid for every nine dollars going to the combat effort, is it any wonder that civilian deaths and starvation are on the rise, while security and stability are on the decline?" asked Layton.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not in the House of Commons, but parliamentary secretary Jason Kenney took exception to Layton's claims.

"I think it's regrettable that the leader of the NDP constantly diminishes the tremendous work being done by our aid workers in Afghanistan," said Kenney, while contending that Canada was sending more aid money to Afghanistan than it ever has to any country.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said late Wednesday that its forces killed 48 militants in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province on Tuesday. ISAF said it had "credible reports" of civilian casualties in the fighting, but was aware of only four civilians wounded.

Maj. Luke Knittig, a ISAF spokesman, said NATO forces used mortar and artillery backed by air support against militants who were trying to undermine efforts to stabilize the area for reconstruction.

Knittig said there were three clashesbetween insurgents and NATO forceswest of Kandahar city, with troops using "precision strikes" against insurgents.

"Very sadly, civilians continue to get caught up in these engagements, with tragic results,"he said.

Knittig said the Afghan Defence Ministry is planning to investigate the reports of civilian deaths.

According to Afghanmal, Taliban militants in the area sought shelter in homes owned by civilians, and NATO forces targeted the homes.

"The government and the coalition told the families that there are no Taliban in the area anymore," Afghanmal said. "If there are no Taliban, then why are they bombing the area?"

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly urged NATO to exercise caution during its operations to avoid civilian deaths and injuries.

In September, NATO conducted a military operation known as Operation Medusa, led by Canadian troops, that it said led to the deaths of 500 suspected militants in two districts, including the Panjwaii, west of Kandahar.NATO deemed the operationa success.

Since then, 10 Canadian soldiers havebeen killed in bombings and attacks by Talibanfighters.

Canada has more than 2,000 troops in southern Afghanistan, the majority in Kandahar, as part of the NATO force in the country. Forty-two Canadian soldiers have died since Canada first sent troops to Afghanistan in early 2002.

With files from the Associated Press