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NATO probes airstrike on tankers in Afghanistan

NATO investigated today whether villagers siphoning fuel were among scores killed in a US airstrike on two tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban, while a bomb blast wounded four German troops in the same northern Afghan province.

A 10-member investigative team flew over the site on the Kunduz river where a US jet called in by the German military hit the tankers with two 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs, triggering a fireball that killed up to 70 people before dawn yesterday. German officials have said the Taliban may have been planning a suicide attack using the hijacked tankers.

The airstrike came despite efforts by the top US general in Afghanistan to curb use of air power and reduce civilian casualties, which have strained relations between the multinational NATO force and the Afghan government.

The investigative team led by US Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, NATO's director of communications in Kabul, also spoke to two injured villagers in the Kunduz hospital, including a boy and a farmer with shrapnel wounds. Both said they were not at the river with the tanker trucks when the bombs fell but were standing a long distance away.

"We don't yet know how many civilians" were at the site of the blast, Smith said. "Unfortunately, we can't get to every village."

A bomb blast, meanwhile, hit a German military convoy today, damaging at least one vehicle. Kunduz provincial police chief, Abdullah Razaq Yaqoobi, said a suicide car bomb caused the blast, though German military officials said it was a roadside bomb.

German officials said four soldiers were wounded in the attack, none seriously.

NATO said yesterday's airstrike targeted militants who had hijacked two tankers carrying fuel to NATO forces in Kabul, but Afghan officials said dozens of villagers also died in the blasts as they tried to retrieve fuel from the tankers.

The deputy UN representative to Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, said today he was "very concerned" about the reports.

"Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an airstrike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present," Galbraith said.

The German military said they feared the hijackers would use the fuel tankers to carry out a suicide attack against its base nearby.

Germany said 57 fighters were killed and no civilians were believed in the area at the time, based on surveillance of the tankers by a drone aircraft. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, acknowledged some civilians may have died, and the US-led coalition and the Afghan government announced a joint investigation.

Local government spokesman Mohammad Yawar estimated that more than 70 people were killed, at least 45 of them militants. Investigators were trying to account for the others, he said.

The local governor, Mohammad Omar, said 72 were killed and 15 wounded. He said about 30 of the dead were identified as insurgents, including four Chechens and a local Taliban commander. The rest were probably fighters or their relatives, he said.

Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and villagers buried some in a mass grave.


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