Bombing runs by U.S.-led coalition jets killed dozens of civilians taking shelter from a fierce ground battle between Taliban militants and Afghan and international forces, two Afghan officials said Tuesday. The U.S. confirmed fighting Monday in western Afghanistan and said reports of civilian deaths were under investigation.
One Afghan official said angry and mournful villagers transported an estimated 30 bodies to a provincial capital to show officials. Other officials estimated the civilian toll to be between 70 and 100.
Civilian deaths have caused increasing friction between the Afghan government and the U.S., and President Hamid Karzai has long pleaded with U.S. officials to reduce the number of civilian casualties in their operations. Karzai meets with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday.
Taliban fighters massed in Farah province in western Afghanistan on Monday, and fighting broke out soon after, said Belqis Roshan, a member of Farah's provincial council.
Villagers told Afghan officials that they put children, women, and elderly men in several housing compounds away from the fighting to keep them safe. But the villagers said fighter aircraft later targeted those compounds in the village of Gerani, killing a majority of those inside, Roshan and other officials said.
Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council, said villagers brought bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the province's governor. Khan said it was difficult to count the bodies because they had had been badly mutilated, but he estimated that villagers brought around 30.
Estimates of the total number of dead varied widely, and no officials were able to travel to Bala Baluk on Tuesday because the region is so dangerous. Afghan officials, citing villager accounts, were told that the death toll ranged between 70 and well over 100. Roshan said she told villagers to take photos and video of the destruction and bodies.
The top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, confirmed U.S. coalition forces participated in the battle. Julian said several wounded Afghans sought medical treatment at a military base in Farah, but officials were still investigating the reports of civilian deaths.
The issue of civilian deaths is complicated. Journalists and human rights workers can rarely visit remote battle sites to verify claims of civilian casualties. U.S. officials say Taliban militants sometimes force villagers to falsely claims that civilians have died to support its information warfare campaign.
But the villagers' claims on Tuesday were bolstered by wounded villagers who traveled to Farah's hospital for care, some of whom told stories of multiple family members being killed. And the several truckloads of bodies taken to Farah city added more weight to the villagers' claims.
Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, the former top official in the district of Bala Baluk, said he saw dozens of bodies when he visited the village of Gerani.
"These houses that were full of children and women and elders were bombed by planes. It is very difficult to say how many were killed because nobody can count the number, it is too early," Qadderdan, who no longer holds a government position, told The Associated Press by telephone. "People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands."
Farah's provincial police chief said 25 Taliban fighters and three Afghan policemen died in the fighting.
"Afghan and foreign forces conducted an operation between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Monday). They have killed more than 25 Taliban. Most of the dead bodies are there," Abdul Ghafar said. He could not confirm reports of civilian casualties.
Qadderdan said there "are more than 100 civilians dead" and about 10 houses were destroyed. He said the wounded Afghans had been severely burned. Qadderdan's numbers were not immediately confirmed by any other official.
Qadderdan said the civilian casualties were "worse than Azizabad," a reference to an August 2008 strike in a district immediately to the north of Bala Baluk.
An Afghan government commission found that an operation by U.S. forces killed 90 civilians in Azizabad, a finding backed by the U.N. The U.S. originally said no civilians died; a high-level investigation later concluded 33 civilians were killed.
After the Azizabad killings, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, announced a directive last September meant to reduce such deaths. He ordered commanders to consider breaking away from a firefight in populated areas rather than pursue militants into villages.