Attacks kill Afghan civilians ahead of Obama review

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Violence in Afghanistan killed more than a dozen civilians and a reported 40 insurgents as U.S. President Barack Obama prepared to unveil a review of strategy in the near decade-long war.

The latest string of attacks comes near the end of the deadliest year since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, with the escalating insurgency costing the lives of a record number of both ordinary Afghans and foreign troops.

Obama said in Afghanistan last week that troops were making “important progress” and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Kabul he was convinced the war was on the right track.

In southern Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed 15 civilians and a car bomb wounded five police. In the north a suicide bomber driving a police car wounded nine, and in the east seven men died in a disputed incident that sent hundreds pouring onto the streets of Gardez city in a protest that turned violent.

In eastern Kunar province near the Pakistan border, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement its troops called in air strikes after an “imminent threat” was determined, killing more than 25 insurgents.

At least 15 more insurgents were killed in other engagements in Kunar and Sangin in Helmand province and Panjwai in Kandahar province in the south, ISAF said.

In Gardez in the east, armed police and protesters fired at each other and burning tire barricades filled the streets with smoke. Six civilians and two policemen were wounded, said Nader Noori, doctor at the Gardez hospital.

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Local officials said an ISAF air strike killed seven road workers overnight. ISAF said Afghan and foreign troops were approached and then fired on by armed men while hunting an insurgent and shot back, killing seven.

“The security force ... is currently assessing who the individuals were, why they were armed and why they were in that area at that time of the morning,” ISAF said in a statement.

The suicide attack on Saturday was in northern Kunduz province, an area that was quite peaceful for many years but where the insurgency is now spreading fast. It is also used as a springboard to launch attacks in other provinces.

The attacker drove a police vehicle and targeted an Afghan National Army convoy, wounding five soldiers and four civilians, said Char Dara District Chief Abdul Wahid Omakheil. The Taliban carried out the attack, said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

Despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops, casualties in Afghanistan have increased rapidly this year.

According to U.N. figures, 1,271 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, up by a fifth on the same period in 2009. About 680 troops have been killed in 2010, around a third of the number killed since the start of the war.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers investigate at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Char Dara district of Kunduz province December 11, 2010. REUTERS/Mateen


Obama is expected to unveil a review of his Afghanistan war strategy next week, although officials have said they do not expect it to result in any major policy shifts.

He has pledged to start bringing home U.S. troops from July 2011 but has not yet decided on the pace or scale of the withdrawal. Many of his commanders and officials say it should happen gradually.

Any drawdown is likely to be more symbolic than substantial, but his 2011 target has drawn criticism from some Republicans who say announcing a date emboldens the Taliban.

In southern Helmand province, one of the heartlands of the insurgency, 15 Afghan civilians were killed on Friday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb, said provincial spokesman Dawud Ahmadi. “It was a newly planted mine,” said Ahmadi.

In neighboring Kandahar, a car bomb blast on Saturday near the police headquarters wounded four Afghan police and two civilians, said Zalmai Ayoubi, spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor. Several police vehicles were destroyed.

Helmand and Kandahar have been the epicenter of a renewed surge against Taliban insurgents by U.S. and other foreign troops over the past 18 months.

Last month, NATO agreed to hand control of security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 and said the NATO-led force could halt combat operations by then if conditions were right.

Additional reporting by Elayas Whadat in KHOST, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; writing by Michelle Nichols; editing by Paul Tait and Andrew Roche