The top NATO commander in Afghanistan said Saturday that local villagers were among those wounded at the site of an airstrike on hijacked fuel tankers, declaring his resolve to limit civilian casualties that threaten to undermine the war against the Taliban.
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal inspected the spot where.
McChrystal also visited a hospital Saturday where the wounded were taken, stooping low to talk with a 10-year-old boy with severe burns, his arms and legs swathed in gauze.
Local officials have said scores of people died in the fiery blast, but it was unclear how many were militants and how many were villagers who rushed to the scene to siphon fuel from the stolen trucks.
A NATO team began an official investigation Saturday amid a clamor from European leaders for answers, with some calling the airstrike a "tragedy" and "a big mistake" that must be investigated.
"From what I have seen today and going to the hospital, it's clear to me that there were some civilians that were harmed at the site," McChrystal told reporters in Kunduz. He did not say if any civilians were killed.
Friday's pre-dawn strike occurred despite McChrystal's new orders restricting use of airpower if civilian lives are at risk. High civilian casualties in military operations have enraged Afghans and undercut support for the war against the Taliban.
Before traveling to the site of the bombing, McCrystal met with local Afghan leaders in the provincial capital. He expressed sympathy for any civilian losses and said the fight against the Taliban should not come at the expense of civilian lives.
"I am here today to ensure that we are operating in a way that is truly protecting the Afghan people from all threats," he told the officials.
At least one local official supported the allied bombing, saying it would help drive the insurgents from the area.
"If we did three more operations like we did yesterday morning, the Kunduz situation would be peaceful and stable," said Ahmadullah Wardak, a provincial council chief.
An aide to McChrystal, who briefed reporters, said the general was taking reports of civilian deaths "very seriously."
McChrystal discussed the incident with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later told senior commanders that "we need to know what we are hitting," the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity under command policy.
McChrystal told reporters Saturday in Kabul that he wanted to find out what happened in Kunduz "so that we first can prevent it from happening again - or minimize the chances that it happens again - and correct anything that we might be able to correct about it like helping the injured."
A 10-member NATO investigative team flew over the site on the Kunduz River where the U.S. jet, called in by the German military, bombed the tankers, which reportedly had become stuck trying to cross a river. German officials have said the Taliban may have been planning a suicide attack on the military's nearby Kunduz base using the tankers, which were hijacked carrying NATO fuel supplies from neighboring Tajikistan.
The investigative team led by U.S. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, NATO's director of communications in Kabul, also spoke to two wounded villagers in the Kunduz hospital, including a boy and a farmer with shrapnel wounds.
Smith said it was unclear yet how many civilians were at the site of the blast. "Unfortunately, we can't get to every village."
Mohammad Shafi, 10, who was injured in the blast and shifted to Kabul for treatment, said that his father had told him not to go near the stolen tankers, but he went anyway. "While I was going to get the fuel, on the way I heard a big bang, and after that I don't know what happened," he said from his hospital bed, with bandages on his arm and leg.
A bomb blast, meanwhile, hit a German military convoy Saturday, damaging at least one vehicle and wounding four troops, none seriously. Kunduz provincial police chief, Abdullah Razaq Yaqoobi, said a suicide car bomb caused the blast, though German military officials said it was a roadside bomb.
An AP reporter at a nearby German base said the blast created a shock wave that could be felt inside the base. The thousands of German troops in Kunduz have come under increasing militant attack in a region that had largely escaped the scale of violence seen in the east and south of Afghanistan.
Germany said 57 fighters were killed in Friday's airstrike and no civilians were believed in the area at the time, based on surveillance of the tankers by a drone aircraft. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, acknowledged some civilians may have died, and the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government announced a joint investigation.
Local government spokesman Mohammad Yawar estimated that more than 70 people were killed, at least 45 of them militants. Investigators were trying to account for the others, he said.
The local governor, Mohammad Omar, said 72 were killed and 15 wounded. He said about 30 of the dead were identified as insurgents, including four Chechens and a local Taliban commander. The rest were probably fighters or their relatives, he said.
Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and villagers buried some in a mass grave.
The deputy U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, said Saturday he was "very concerned" about the reports of civilian deaths.
"Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an airstrike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present," Galbraith said.
By Associated Press Writers Frank Jordans and Jason Straziuso