Children used as human shields for Taliban fighters

KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades used children as human shields during a battle in southern Afghanistan yesterday, forcing U.S.-led coalition soldiers to hold their fire for a time, the coalition said.

The clash in Uruzgan province began when more than 20 insurgents attacked a joint Afghan and coalition patrol, the coalition said in a statement.

As aircraft prepared to bomb the site, “coalition forces as well as the aircraft identified several insurgents in one compound using children as human shields,” the statement said. Ground troops and the aircraft withheld fire to avoid injuring the children, it said.

The soldiers did fight the insurgents when they tried to flee the compound, and more than a dozen suspected militants were killed, the coalition said. The report, which was impossible to verify independently, did not list any casualties among troops or civilians.

Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, said Taliban militants have used children as shields before. In June, insurgents forced women and children into a canal in Uruzgan while battling coalition forces, and many of the human shields died in the crossfire, he said.

“If you look at some of the actions where the Taliban have had women and children carrying ammunition for them, where they’ve used civilian houses, and now in this case they’re using children to shield themselves, I’d say that shows they really don’t care about Afghans,” Belcher said.

The U.S.-led coalition and the NATO force in Afghanistan themselves were strongly criticized earlier in the year by President Hamid Karzai and others for causing civilian casualties in airstrikes on suspected militant locations. The number of such casualties has dropped recently.

Also yesterday, NATO said it was investigating a weapons shipment recently intercepted by troops in Farah province near the Afghan border with Iran.

“Although we know that it came from the geographic area of Iran, there is no definitive indication that it came from the Iranian government. We’re still evaluating what is contained in that shipment,” a NATO spokesman, Maj. Charles Anthony, said.