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Nato's regret over Afghan civilian deaths

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 February 2010

As the Afghan conflict enters a deadly new phase Gordon Brown and Nato chiefs insist coalition troops are doing "everything in their power" to avoid civilian deaths.

Gordon Brown has added his voice to reassurances that troops are doing everything they can to stop civilian causalities in Afghanistan, during Operation Moshtarak.

The prime minister said earlier: "I have spoken to President Karzai and I wanted him to know that we are doing everything in our power to minimise civilian casualties.

"Obviously hundreds of troops have moved into an area where we have had problems with Taliban insurgents and our forces are at risk from explosive devices.

"We have got to do everything we can to keep our troops safe but at the same time the purpose of this mission is to win the support of the Afghan people, to bring them to support the constitution of Afghanistan and away from the Taliban.

"I believe that we will break the Taliban during this enterprise because people do not want to have the fear that is created by the Taliban and the possibility of al Qaida coming back into Afghanistan."

Mr Brown's statement follows the regret expressed by Nato commander US General Stanley McChrystal over the deaths of 12 civilians killed after a missile missed its target by 300 meters.

As the coalition forces press ahead with a major offensive against Taliban strongholds in the south of the country General McChrystal said it was "regrettable" that "innocent lives were lost".

"We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents," he said.

He added he had apologised to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the accident and had suspended use of the rocket system until the incident could be reviewed.

Overnight 12 Taliban fighters had been killed in an assault against the group's last stronghold in Afghanistan's most violent province, a provincial government official said.

Discussing the Taliban response to the operation in Nad Ali, Helmand province, Major Mike Taylor, squadron commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, said: "It is pretty much the enemy course of action we expected to see them take. Initially, overwhelmed by the size and shock of the ISAF move into the area, we expect them... I think, to melt into the popoulation for the time being."

Operation Moshtarak is the first test of US President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas ahead of a planned 2011 troop drawdown.

View Operation Moshtarak in a larger map

This morning the Ministry of Defence announced the death of a British soldier killed in Afghanistan. The soldier from 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, was killed in a firefight in the Musa Qala area. His death was not linked to the ongoing Operation Moshtarak.

The death brings the total number of British soliders killed to 260.

Roadside bombs
US Marines are making steady progress in the offensive but areas infested with roadside bombs are bogging them down, a spokesman said on Monday.

"We are making steady progress but being very methodical about detecting and clearing routes in an area heavily saturated with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)," Marine Capt. Abraham Sipe told Reuters in response to an email, adding counts of militants killed of captured would not be provided.

"In many parts of Marjah, we have seen very little opposition. There are areas where Marines have met with stiff resistance, but they are making steady progress throughout the area."

Much of the success of the operation in Helmand province depends on whether the new administration wins the trust of the local population and Afghan troops are effective enough to keep the Taliban from returning.

Civilians have already expressed doubts that Afghan troops can keep control of the district if the Taliban are cleared.

At a meeting with government authorities close to Marjah, some 200 villagers urged the regional government to persuade Nato-led troops to remain in Marjah once they secure the area, Ahmadi said.

Forces Minister Bill Rammell told Channel 4 News said that the offensive was crucial to rebuilding infrastructure and providing security in Afghanistan.

"Operation Moshtarak is going very well it is about spreading the authority fo the afghan government, taking back those larger remaining areas where the Taliban hold sway, improving the transport infrastructure….in line with our strategy of transferring responsibility for security and stability to the Afghans."

New strategy
Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson reports on the new strategy in Afghanistan:

"Nato's grand stratagem in Afghanistan: Clear, Hold, Build.

"But how real is this "Clear"? Clearly the Taliban are watching closely what is happening and waiting. If they can melt away, they can equally well melt back into central Helmand and elsewhere.

"Perhaps not this month, or year. But next year when Nato is desperate to start pulling its troops out.

"The Taliban have time on their side. For Nato the political clock is ever ticking. Obama needs results with mid-terms beginning to loom. He needs to start bringing his people home. So too Gordon Brown.

"So it will not be clear what clear really means for a good long while to come.

"Let us move to stage two: Hold. With Nato commanders admitting this is the difficult bit. But this is vital to Gen Stanley McChrystal's Grand Plan for Afghanising the country.

"Once the Talibs have moved, in theory in come the army and the police. And Afghans begin dealing with Afghan problems.

"Simple? Well not quite."
Read his blog in full here.

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