Rift with Karzai worsens as 95 perish in Nato air strike

Deadly attack undermines politicians’ attempts to convince public that Afghan war is worth fighting

Western forces were engulfed in bitter controversy yesterday after Nato air strikes on two oil tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan led to carnage with a fireball killing 95 people, dozens of them civilians.

Most of those who perished were burned to death. Nato initially insisted that all the dead were Taliban insurgents but later, after angry protests from residents and officials, they acknowledged there had been civilian deaths.

The attack at the village of Haji Aman, around seven miles from Kunduz, could not have come at a more volatile time in Afghanistan, with intense anger over civilian casualties and an intensifying clash between President Hamid Karzai and Washington over the disputed national election. The incumbent President has repeatedly complained about civilian deaths from Nato air strikes.

The chain of events leading to the Kunduz bloodshed began with Taliban fighters hijacking two fuel trucks near a Nato base on Thursday night. The truck drivers were said to have been beheaded at the roadside before the militants made off with the vehicles. An unmanned drone aircraft was dispatched to track the vehicles. What happened subsequently is unclear.

Those injured in the air strike were ferried by ambulances, taxis, tractors and carts to the central hospital in Kunduz. Sitting in a corridor as a stream of people were taken into adjoining wards, Ghulam Yahya wept: "My brother was burned when the aircraft bombed the fuel tankers, I don't know whether he is dead or alive."

The commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, last night contacted Mr Karzai to say that he was committed to investigating the incident. Questions were being raised specifically over how the events at Kunduz sit with orders issued by General McChrystal that air strikes should not be authorised unless it is first confirmed that there is no prospect of civilian casualties, or allied forces are in imminent danger. The directive is part of the General's new strategy of "protecting the people".

The killings and the subsequent row also take place against the backdrop of dwindling support for the Afghan war in Europe and America, with Gordon Brown forced yesterday to defend the continuing presence of British troops.

The deaths also came just 24 hours after the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates denied that the war in Afghanistan was "slipping through the administration's fingers". He moreover dismissed suggestions that it was time to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan and fight the war only with air strikes and drones. "The notion that you can conduct a purely counter-terrorist kind of campaign, and do it from a distance, simply does not accord with reality," Mr Gates said.

As President Barack Obama reviews a report from General McChrystal on recalibrating the war, he also knows that public support for it is diminishing rapidly. A CNN poll this week showed that 57 per cent of Americans are now opposed to the war.

The United Nations expressed its "deep concern" about what had happened. Peter Galbraith, the deputy head of the organisation's mission to Afghanistan, said: "Steps must be taken to examine what happened and why an air strike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present."

Two local MPs said feelings against foreign forces were running high in the area. "We are very upset; a lot of ordinary people have been killed," said Mohammed Amin Qaneh. "Why did they have to bomb the tankers? Does Nato put the price of oil higher than the price of blood? We want justice; we want those responsible punished."

Fellow parliamentarian Qaari Niamtullah added: "Everyone is very angry and the Taliban will just exploit this to get support."

Local people said the hijackers had faced difficulty when they reached Kunduz river at the Haji Aman crossing, and asked villagers to help themselves to the diesel. This is when the bombing happened. According to German officials, the unmanned plane's cameras showed no presence of civilians.

Later yesterday a Nato spokesman, Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, said: "It would appear that many civilian casualties are being evacuated and treated in the local hospitals. There is perhaps a direct link with the incident that has occurred around the two fuel trucks."

The civilian toll: Innocent victims

*December 2001

The US is accused of killing around 100 civilians in a reported attack on the village of Qalaye Niazi.

*October 2006

According to claims by Afghan officials, an erring Nato air strike in Kandahar province kills at least 60 civilians.

*June 2007

Air strikes in Helmand province kill up to 80 people, according to claims by locals.

*November 2008

A wedding party in Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar province is reportedly bombed by a US plane, with around 40 civilians, including 23 children, killed, according to witnesses from the village of Wech Baghtu.

*May 2009

Villages in western Farah province are bombed by US planes, in an attack which, an investigation conducted by the Afghan government concludes, killed 140. The US military claims the figure is lower.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?