KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban fighters used children as human shields to flee heavy fighting this week during an operation by foreign and Afghan forces to clear rebels from around a key hydro-electric dam, NATO said on Wednesday.
The Taliban have used human shields before, but never children, local residents say.
The fighting occurred during Operation Kryptonite on Monday, an offensive to clear insurgents from the Kajaki Dam area in southern Helmand province to allow repairs to its power plants and the installation of extra capacity.
“During this action ... Taliban extremists resorted to the use of human shields. Specifically, using local Afghan children to cover as they escaped out of the area,” Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told reporters in Kabul.
The Kajaki Dam fighting was in an area where 700 mainly foreign fighters, including Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks, arrived from Pakistan this week to reinforce Taliban guerrillas.
NATO also said it killed a senior local Taliban commander and several comrades in a pre-dawn air-strike on Wednesday between the dam and the rebel-held town of Musa Qala to the west, but denied residents’ accounts civilians were also killed.
The leader, identified by police and tribal elders as Mullah Manan, was involved in the capture of Musa Qala 13 days ago and clashes around Kajaki.
NATO said its soldiers saw 11 bodies, all fighting-age males, dragged from the wreckage by Taliban fighters. Provincial police said Manan and at least eight more Taliban were killed and that they had no word of civilian casualties.
But local residents and elders said civilians also died.
“It is a well-known enemy tactic to try to blame civilian casualties on ISAF forces,” Collins said in a statement.
“We continue to conduct specific shaping operations — to go after specific Taliban extremists, the leadership who are impacting the enemy’s operations,” he told reporters later.
The Interior Ministry said it has also arrested a Taliban leader in the province of Khost.
The Kajaki dam has seen major fighting in recent weeks between the Taliban and NATO forces, mainly British and Dutch.
NATO-led forces have been conducting operations in the area for several months to allow reconstruction on the dam and the power transmission lines to boost output, after fighting halted repair and development work last year.
The Taliban cannot destroy the dam, which would also flood a large area of the Helmand Valley, but its tactics are aimed at making it too unsafe for work to go ahead.
The dam was first built on the Helmand river in the 1950s.
Its hydroelectric plants, with a generating capacity of 33 megawatts, were installed in 1975. Once fully operational, the dam will bring electricity to 1.8 million people, NATO says.