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Thursday, August 24, 2006

U.S. says seven 'al Qaeda' killed in Afghan clash

ASADABAD, Afghanistan, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Seven suspected al Qaeda members were killed in a clash in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, the U.S. military said, although Afghan officials said the dead were civilians.

Separately, a NATO soldier handing out relief was killed and four wounded when Taliban guerrillas attacked them in the southern province of Zabul, a defence ministry spokesman said.

That attack triggered a battle in which at least seven Taliban were killed, Zahir Azimi told Reuters. A NATO spokesman said he had no immediate information and was checking.

The seven suspected al Qaeda members were killed in a predawn raid on a compound in eastern Kunar province, the U.S. military said in a statement. Later, a U.S. spokesman said the nationalities of the seven killed were not known.

The U.S. and Afghan troops were on an operation to capture "a known al Qaeda facilitator" linked to attacks on Afghan and coalition troops, the U.S. statement said.

"Afghan and coalition forces came under direct fire when approaching the compound and defended themselves with return fire," it said. A child was also killed and a woman wounded.

Afghan officials said the seven killed in the attack in Shegal district, to the east of the provincial capital, Asadabad, were civilians.

"These were civilians that were shot dead," said senior provincial police officer Abdul Saboor Allahyar.

Provincial officials had earlier said seven civilians, including some village elders, were killed in an air strike but Allahyar said they were killed in ground fire.


The U.S. and Afghan troops captured four men from the compound while other "enemy fighters" fled, the U.S. statement said. An investigation had been launched to determine the identity of the seven dead, it added.

Kunar is near the border with Pakistan and the Taliban and their Islamic allies, including members of the al Qaeda network, have been active there since U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

Pakistan said last week the mastermind of a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, foiled by British police this month, was an al Qaeda member based in Afghanistan. Pakistani press reports said the mastermind was believed to be in Kunar.

Civilian deaths in the war against the Taliban are highly sensitive for foreign forces and for Afghanistan's Western-backed government led by President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai last week urged foreign forces to exercise extreme caution while conducting operations against militants.

On Tuesday, NATO forces killed 11 people in the southern province of Kandahar. Villagers said they were civilians but NATO said they were insurgents.

Last week, provincial officials said at least 12 policemen were killed in a coalition air attack in the southeastern province of Paktika.

The coalition said those killed were believed to be militants and it was ready to assist with any investigation.

A resurgent Taliban have unleased a wave of violence this year. About 2,000 people, most of them militants but including more than 90 foreign troops and scores of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians, have been killed since January.
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