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US-Led Forces Accused of Executing Schoolchildren in Afghanistan

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In Afghanistan, hundreds have taken to the streets of Kabul and elsewhere to protest the US killing of civilians. The incident that has sparked the most outrage took place in eastern Kunar on December 27th, when ten Afghans, eight of them schoolchildren, were killed. According to the Times of London, US-led troops dragged innocent children from their beds and shot them during a nighttime raid. Afghan government investigators said the eight students were aged from eleven to seventeen, all but one of them from the same family. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: Afghan President Hamid Karzai had harsh words for US and NATO forces on Tuesday in the wake of a string of attacks that has killed dozens of civilians. His comments came in an interview on Al Jazeera.

    PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: We are going to ask the international community to end nighttime raids on Afghan homes. We are going to ask them to stop arresting Afghans. We are going to ask them to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties. We are going to ask them not to have Afghan prisoners taken. Those are the most sensitive areas of sovereignty for any nation, and we want to have that sovereignty retained and taken back.

ANJALI KAMAT: On Monday, hundreds of people, mostly students, protested in Kabul and in the province of Nangarhar against the US killing of civilians. Nearly thirty civilians have died over the past two weeks alone in US-led air strikes and ground operations.

But the incident that has sparked the most outrage took place in eastern Kunar province on December 27th, when ten Afghans, eight of them schoolchildren, were killed. According to the Times of London, US-led troops dragged innocent children from their beds and shot them during a nighttime raid. Afghan government investigators said the eight students were aged from eleven to seventeen, all but one of them from the same family. The headmaster of the local school said seven of the children were handcuffed and then executed. A preliminary investigation by the United Nations reinforced Afghan claims that most of the dead were schoolboys.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Afghanistan now to speak with Jerome Starkey. He’s the Times of London correspondent in Afghanistan who reported on this story. He’s joining us on the telephone from Kabul.

Jerome, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the story for us. What is exactly being alleged happened?

JEROME STARKEY: Well, the Afghan investigators believe that an Americans unit — they’re not sure which one, possibly a company with [inaudible] — flew from Kabul to Narang district in Kunar province. They say — Assadullah Wafa, the former governor who led the investigation — they probably landed about two kilometers outside the village where these killings are alleged to have taken place and then walked on foot into the village.

They then say that when they got there — this is where the version of events vary. Some people say that the victims were killed in three separate buildings. Some say they were three separate rooms, all part of the same compound. What most of the people on the scene agree on, though, is that at least eight of them were schoolchildren enrolled in a local — in two schools, one — some in a local high school and some in a local primary school. One of the victims was apparently a local shepherd boy who was staying as a guest in the compound overnight. And the tenth victim was a farmer, a day laborer who was working on the nearby fields, who came out when he heard the shooting and was shot where he stood.

ANJALI KAMAT: Jerome, what’s been the response from US and NATO forces?

JEROME STARKEY: Well, initially, US and NATO forces here were very slow to say anything at all, and that possibly reflects the most secret nature of this raid. The fact that, according to Afghan investigators, these troops appear to have flown to the scene from Kabul appears to confirm speculation that this was an operation carried out by some sort of Special Forces unit, possibly even by some sort of paramilitary unit attached to one of the intelligence agencies, the foreign intelligence agencies, which operate occasionally out of the capital.

They have, however, confirmed that there was an incident. Off the record, speaking on background, a number of NATO officials have insisted that they believe the people who were killed were part of a Taliban network making improvised explosive devices, homemade bombs, the roadside explosives, which has exacted such a deadly toll against their forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan here. They’ve also issued a statement suggesting that they believe there is nothing to suggest that these people were unarmed. They say that they were shot at as they approached the village and that they killed the ten Afghans by when they returned fire.

AMY GOODMAN: You also spoke with the headmaster of the school, explaining his version of what happened?

JEROME STARKEY: That’s right. He was very keen to give the names of all of the students. He even gave what he said were their enrollment numbers, their registration numbers at the school, as sort of corroborating evidence that they were indeed students. I think even the United Nations’ investigations have confirmed that they believe at least some of the victims were enrolled in local schools. Now that doesn’t necessarily prove that they weren’t involved in any other nefarious sort of activities, but it does corroborate the fact that they were indeed children. And much of the outrage that this attack has caused comes from the fact that the victims were children, ranging from just eleven to seventeen years old. But the headmaster, as I said, he was also an uncle to about eight of the boys. These village communities often — families are very sort of interlinked. But he was very adamant to stress that the victims were innocent schoolchildren.

AMY GOODMAN: Were the kids handcuffed?

JEROME STARKEY: Well, this is one of the facts which is in dispute. But certainly, we spoke to the headmaster. We also spoke to another local called Jan Mohammed from the area. And both of them gave versions of events which suggested that some of the victims, at least some of the victims, had been handcuffed before they were shot. But this is where the exact details of what happened appear to break down, and not all the stories completely corroborate one another. Given the nature of the environment, we haven’t been able to travel there ourselves, and we’ve been relying on telephone interviews with people who are there and people who’ve visited the scene.

ANJALI KAMAT: And Jerome Starkey, can you describe the mood in Kabul? A number of civilians have been killed in recent weeks. The President, Hamid Karzai, has come out strongly against these killings. What does it feel like on the streets of Kabul? There have been protests.

JEROME STARKEY: Civilian casualties is, without doubt, one of the key, touchstone issues that is very quick to inflame public anger. Right across Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of this attack, there were a number of protests. There was one here in Kabul that we went to where there were schoolchildren of a similar age as these — to these victims on the street demanding an immediate withdrawal. They listed a series of incidents in the last few years where large numbers of innocent civilians have been killed. In some cases, more than a hundred civilians have been killed in single attacks. And they question whether or not international forces attach the same value to Afghan lives as they do to the lives of their own soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance, Jerome Starkey, of President Karzai speaking out against the United States right now, as well as his security chiefs? And the question of who these forces were — were they paramilitary secret, covert forces? Were they US soldiers?

JEROME STARKEY: Well, it’s impossible for me to tell you absolutely who these soldiers were. I spoke to Assadullah Wafa, who led the investigation, just this morning and asked him that question again, whether or not he had any more information as to exactly who these people were who had carried out this raid. And he said he didn’t. He found speaking to the foreign military very difficult to get any sort of information from them.

Crucially, it is interesting and it is unusual that the National Security Council should have demanded that the soldiers behind the — or the gunmen behind this attack be handed over to face Afghan justice. Foreign forces in Afghanistan aren’t governed by a legal status of forces agreement, as foreign troops, as most American troops, usually are in other countries around the world, including Iraq. It’s not unusual for the President to come out and criticize America and criticize foreign forces, particularly when they are behind civilian casualties. He has come not many times in the past, often very emotional statements. He has been known to cry, publicly weep, as he mourns the loss of innocent civilians. But what is unusual this time is there appears to be an escalation. There has been a suggestion from the security chiefs that they want these people responsible to be handed over. Now, Afghan justice is certainly not a particularly transparent process, and even Assadullah Wafa, who led the investigation, admitted to me this morning he thinks it’s absolutely very unlikely that these soldiers or these gunmen will be handed over.

AMY GOODMAN: Jerome Starkey, we want to thank you very much for being with us. He is the Times of London correspondent in Afghanistan. He’s speaking to us from Kabul.

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