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Afghan leader urges coalition troops to curb civilian deaths

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday made an emotional appeal for coalition troops to strive to prevent civilian deaths as a major offensive in the south by U.S., British and Afghan troops entered its second week.

The president’s remarks, in a speech to Afghan lawmakers, came as Western military officials announced that troops involved in the fighting for the Taliban stronghold of Marja had shot and killed an Afghan man a day earlier, mistakenly believing he was menacing a patrol with a makeshift bomb.

NATO says 16 civilians have been accidentally killed by Western troops in the Marja offensive, which began in the early hours of Feb. 13. Afghan human rights groups put noncombatant deaths at about two dozen.

Thousands of Afghan civilians, frightened by the fighting, have fled their homes in and around the town, finding shelter elsewhere in Helmand province. But many residents say insurgents have prevented them from leaving, warning that there are buried bombs everywhere.

Karzai, addressing parliament as it opened its winter session, held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl he said was the only survivor after 12 of her family members were killed when NATO rockets hit a home on the second day of the offensive.

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“We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties,” the Afghan president said.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, ordered troops to exercise all possible care. Field commanders say they are doing their best to follow strict rules of engagement.

Karzai has often angrily rebuked Western forces over civilian deaths and injuries. In Saturday’s speech, however, he thanked McChrystal for helping keep the civilian toll low.

A joint force led by U.S. Marines is still struggling to gain full control of Marja, which for years has been a Taliban stronghold. Scattered battles raged again Saturday, military officials said, with coalition troops taking fire from Taliban snipers and uncovering more buried bombs.

A statement from the International Security Assistance Force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization described the latest clashes as “difficult,” particularly to the northeast and west of Marja, and noted that “insurgent activity is not limited to those areas.”

A Marine spokesman said the offensive was moving forward.

“It’s a slow, deliberate process,” Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said. “We’re still working to clear parts of the city.”

In his speech, Karzai again urged low-level Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and rejoin Afghan society.

“End this war. Return to your homes and help rebuild,” said the Afghan leader, whose efforts to woo disaffected fighters have recently won the backing of international allies.

Officials in the Karzai government have expressed hope that a recent string of setbacks to the Taliban leadership may encourage low-level fighters to leave the insurgency. The Taliban’s military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured this month in Pakistan, and several other senior figures, including the Taliban “shadow governor” of Kunduz province, were also recently arrested there.

laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry in Nawa, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.


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