General McChrystal goes on Afghanistan TV to promise airstrike death inquiry

Gen McChrystal flew to the northeern Kunduz province to see the damage done by the F-15 fighter jet attack on two hijacked fuel tankers, around which villagers had begun to gather shortly before dawn when Nato missiles struck.

Before he did so, Gen McChrystal - who has said that protecting Afghans is the centrepiece of a new Nato strategy - made an unprecedented televised address to the Afghan people, promising to make the outcome of an investigation public. The scale of the deaths and injuries among civilians in the single incident, after the attack was called in by German troops, threatens to undermine Gen McChrystal's startegy of winning hearts and minds.

"As Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people," he said in the taped address, released in versions dubbed into the two official languages, Dari and Pashtu.

"I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously."

He later made a brief personal tour of the site in Kunduz, a northern province where Taliban fighters have stepped up attacks and seized control of remote areas, and sent Nato officers to meet relatives of victims as part of a fact-finding mission.

In the village of Yaqoubi, a scattering of mud-brick homes near the blackened shells of the tankers, residents wept and prayed beside dozens of graves of victims while Taliban fighters with rifles looked on. The militants' presence was proof of their increasing domination of an area recently under government control.

"We will take revenge. A lot of innocent people were killed here," said one of the Taliban fighters, only his eyes visible beneath a thick scarf. Sahar Gul, a 54-year-old village elder from Yaqoubi, said: "Entire families have been destroyed."

At the central hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz, Shaifullah, a boy of 6 or 7 with an arm and a leg bandaged from severe burns, lay in a tiny, foul-smelling hospital room, crammed with beds and swarming with flies.

"I went to get the fuel with everybody else, and then the bombs fell on us," the boy told a delegation led by US Navy Rear Admiral Greg Smith, head of public affairs for the 103,000 American and Nato troops in Afghanistan.

But Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar said residents had brought the attacks on themselves by allowing fighters into the area. "Villagers paid a price for helping and sheltering the insurgents," he said.

The Kunduz area is patrolled by members of a 4,000-strong German contingent, who are banned by Berlin from operating in combat zones elsewhere. A suicide bomber wounded four German soldiers in a strike on a convoy on Saturday.

Afghanistan is in a tense political waiting period while election officials continue to count votes and announce results from the presidential election on August 20.

Results of the latest tranche of votes to be counted were due this weekend, with Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, expecting to pull ahead of the crucial 50 per cent mark for the first time. If he can win outright over the myriad other candidates there will be no need for a second round of balloting.

But reports of widespread fraud, stuffing of ballot boxes and voter intimidation have led to fears that any result will be challenged and could lack legitimacy.

The period of limbo threatened to lengthen when the Independent Election Commission (IEC) postponed releasing the latest tranche of results on Saturday because of "technical problems".

The commission is in fact understood to be divided on whether to investigate apparently rigged ballots itself ,or pass the buck to the separate complaints watchdog.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai's nearest rival, accused the IEC of complicity in fraud for already refusing to disallow or investigate votes that appeared blatantly rigged.

He said ballot boxes have been tallied and accepted even though they should have been investigated for containing exclusively hundreds of Karzai votes.

He complained that data from hundreds of polling stations published on the election commission's website showed Mr Karzai with impossibly round numbers of votes. In one village, where official results showed every single voter backing him, the president received exactly 500 votes at each of four polling separate stations.


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