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NATO to Probe Strike that Killed Dozens of Civilians

September 4, 2009 at 1:43 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: We start with today’s airstrike on a fuel truck hijacked by the Taliban in northern Kunduz Province. Afghan officials said dozens of civilians died. Sue Turton of Independent Television News narrates this report.

SUE TURTON, ITN’S CHANNEL 4 NEWS CORRESPONDENT: One minute villagers were scavenging for spilt fuel. The next, an airstrike set everything ablaze. The Taliban fighters had been trying to drag the hijacked tankers out of the mud after getting stuck crossing a river. They dumped some of the fuel to lighten the load.

As many as 500 local people grabbed buckets to collect the discarded kerosene. A huge fireball engulfed them. People were killed, including a 10-year-old boy.

At a local hospital, the driver of one of the tankers revealed that he had warned the military about the Taliban fighters.

MAN (through translator): The Taliban were there from 2:00 yesterday. I told the military about them and warned they would hijack us. They said they would tell their base, but no one came to help us until much later.

SUE TURTON: Local police said 40 of the dead and many of the dozens who were badly burned were civilians. NATO forces were reluctant to believe it.

German troops patrol this northern province. German commanders had called in air support. A statement from Berlin reported that there were no civilians among the dead. In Kabul, a forces spokesman confirmed that NATO had checked there were no civilians in the area before launching the strike, but it later promised an immediate investigation.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, secretary-general, NATO: Certainly, a number of Taliban were killed. There is also the possibility of civilian casualties as well, but it is not yet clear.

SUE TURTON: Footage emerged today of an attack on U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan. Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard is shot. He’s evacuated, but later dies on the operating table. His comrades gathered to pay their respects. The human cost of this war continues to mount on both sides.

British PM addresses war skeptics

JIM LEHRER: Next, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's reassurances about the Afghan mission in the face of rising casualties. Lucy Manning of Independent Television News has that report.

LUCY MANNING, ITN'S ITV NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Each one a hero, said the prime minister. And while no doubts their bravery, how long it will all take, how many more families will see coffins coming home, and, crucially, why we are there has been much harder to explain.

GORDON BROWN, prime minister, Britain: There is nothing more heartbreaking in the job I do than meeting people who have lost someone who is a loved one in their family. There is nothing more heartbreaking than, as I did this week, meeting a teenager who has lost his leg.

LUCY MANNING: He faced his critics head on.

GORDON BROWN: I have to keep asking myself, are we taking the right decision for them and for the conduct of the action in Afghanistan? Are we doing what is right, both by our forces and by the population of this country? And every time I ask myself, as I do, these questions, my answer is yes.

MAN: Fire!

LUCY MANNING: But as the prime minister insisted the U.K. could not simply walk away, one of his defense team was doing just that, Eric Joyce, a former soldier, telling ITV News why he was quitting his job with the defense secretary.

ERIC JOYCE M.P., former aide to British defense minister: I don't think we can simply say a statement that we're preventing terrorism back in the U.K. In many ways, that's true, but it is not enough of an explanation. People really need to know what would happen if we weren't there? Would Americans simply fill the gap? Well, some people think they might. But we have to play our part. But in order to convince the British public of that, we need to be quite clear of what our rationale is.

LUCY MANNING: It has been the most difficult of summers, but, said the prime minister, it is still the right thing.