Afghanistan US toll now 1 000

2010-02-23 22:44

Kabul -A bomb strapped to a bicycle exploded near a busy bus terminal in Afghanistan, killing eight people on Tuesday as the death toll of US troops in the Afghan war surpassed the grim milestone of 1 000.

The attack took place in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province where a massive US led military offensive against the Taliban entered a tenth day and US defence chiefs said progress was slower than expected.

Sixteen people were also injured in the blast, the interior ministry said.

The Helmand assault by 15 000 US troops, dubbed Operation Mushtarak - meaning "together" in the Dari Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan - aims to push the Taliban out of the Marjah and Nad Ali areas under their control.

But the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in Washington progress against Taliban fighters in the target areas was "steady if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated".

Commanders have said it could take another month to bring the areas under total control, though civilian police have already been deployed.

"Afghan and combined forces continue to encounter small but determined pockets of resistance, often from bunkers or other fortified positions," Nato said in an operational update.

Bombs problematic

IEDs, improvised explosive devices, posed the main challenge, it said, adding "a new patrol base is operational" and "a new police base is being built in south east Marjah", referring to the main Marjah bazaar.

Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar have been the main focus of insurgent activity since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001.

Senior military leaders, including US General Stanley McChrystal who commands the 121 000 US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, have said Kandahar is in line for a major anti-insurgent offensive of its own.

McChrystal went on television to apologise for a mistaken Nato air strike on Sunday that killed 27 civilians.

The apology was an effort to quell rising public anger over civilian casualties after the third mistaken bombing raid in a week.

His one-minute video was dubbed into the Dari and the local Pashto language, Nato's International Security Assistance (Isaf) said, and broadcast on private television stations.

It was McChrystal's second apology in a week for civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops after a rocket strike killed at least nine people during a major offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

In the video he expresses "extreme sadness" and says foreign forces are in Afghanistan "to protect the Afghan people".

Civilian casualties are a sensitive issue in Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers are trying to defeat an eight-year Taliban insurgency. The Kabul government condemned the air strike as "unjustifiable".

"People are very, very sad and angry over this incident," said Sayed Daud Nasiri, a lawmaker from Daykundi's Kijran district, who said his cousin was among the dead.

Bombing criminal

"We are trying to prevent any protest or disorder in the area now," he said.

Nader Naderi, spokesperson for the Independent Human Rights Commission, called for a criminal investigation into the incident.

"What is now needed is further investigation into the incident and compensation for those affected," he said.

The Afghan government said four women and a child were among the dead when three vehicles they were travelling in were fired on by Nato helicopters.

McChrystal's apology came as the number of US troops to die in the Afghan war hit 1 000, according to a tally kept by the independent website.

The tally appeared to miss at least one US fatality, and two Isaf deaths announced on Monday, bringing the total number of foreign soldiers to die in the war since 2001 to 1 661 according to an AFP count.

So far this year 58 foreign soldiers have died in the war, with Isaf spokesperson Sergeant Jeff Loftin confirming the Mushtarak toll at 13.

Romanian defence ministry officials said one of their soldiers was killed and another wounded Tuesday after their vehicle hit a mine on the highway linking Kandahar to Kabul.

Karzai condemned the attack, the bombing in Lashkar Gah and another on Monday that killed 14 people, including a tribal elder who had led militias during the 2001 US led invasion.

Meanwhile the president has changed a law to take control of an election watchdog that threw out more than half a million votes cast for him in last year's election, his spokesperson said on Tuesday.