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Is NATO trying to silence reports on civilian casualties in Kunar?

A crisis is brewing over alleged civilian casualties in northeastern Afghanistan, while US forces temporarily detain journalists covering the incident.

The fracas has added fuel to an already raging fire. Civilian casualties are an extremely sensitive issue in the strained relations between the international forces and the Afghan government. While U.N. figures show that the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, it is the incidents where U.S. or other foreign forces kill or injure non-combatants that seem to inflame local passions.

The Ghazi Abad attacks come in a particularly difficult week in Afghanistan, with up to 40 civilians killed in an insurgent attack in Jalalabad city, and another 31 dead in a similar hit in Kunduz province.

But it is Ghazi Abad and the row that followed that have claimed the angriest headlines.

If substantiated, the Ghazi Abad strike could be one of the largest single incidents of civilian deaths since an airstrike in Herat province killed more than 90, in 2008.

It also closely follows a sharp rise in air strikes by U.S. forces. In January, the Air Force flew close to 300 sorties — double the number registered in the same month last year.

It was an over-reliance on airstrikes and the concomitant civilian deaths that prompted Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to drastically curtail air operations in 2009.

But with McChrystal’s replacement by Petraeus in June 2010, the brakes came off.

NATO officials have not backed down on Ghazi Abad. While they say they will launch an investigation into possible casualties, they dismiss reports of large numbers of non-combatant deaths.

But Nizami insists that he has proof. In an interview with a journalist from Mahaal, an Afghan radio news service, he told of his investigations:

“The local people said more than 60 people were killed and most of them were women and children, I saw and have video footage of the incident which shows women, children, dead bodies and injured people. I saw mass graves as well where seven or eight women and children were buried together.

“Later on when I listed those killed it reached to 67; there were 29 children, most of whom were between 6 and 18 years old. There were 23 women. The rest were men of various ages.”

It was this footage, says Alawi, that caused the journalists’ detention.

Seiber rejects this out of hand. He does not deny that the U.S. forces took the journalists’ cameras, but says that this was done in the interests of security.

“They could have been trying to film our operations,” he said. “They had pictures of our interpreters, which could have put the interpreters in danger if they got into the wrong hands.

“But I can tell you, there were no pictures of civilian casualties on those cameras.”

Nizami told Mahaal that he had been invited to the Presidential Palace, called the Arg, to share his materials with Karzai.

“Today I am going to meet President Karzai and share all that I saw and heard and all the materials I have,” he said on Monday. “I will tell him what the reality is.”