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U.S.: Afghan Civilian Deaths Closer To 20

The U.S. military said Wednesday at least 20 civilians and 60 insurgents died in a clash between Taliban and U.S. forces earlier this month, contradicting the Afghan government's assertion that 140 civilians were killed.

Another airstrike by NATO-led forces killed eight Afghan civilians following a battle with militants in southern Helmand province on Tuesday, where Afghan troops also killed 25 militants, officials said.

On Wednesday, a roadside bomb near Kabul killed two Americans - one service member and a civilian, the U.S. military said.

Preliminary findings from the May 4-5 clash in the western Farah province could not determine the exact number of people killed, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the death and destruction in two villages in Bala Buluk district, but it was unclear exactly how many people died there and under what circumstances.

The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead. A list of names provided by villagers cites at least 60 women killed. And on Wednesday, Farah's police chief, Abdul Gafar Watandar, said between 25 and 30 Taliban were also killed in the battle.

But the U.S. investigators found that 60-65 Taliban fighters died in the battle and "at least 20-30 civilians were killed," said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

The American military has continuously disputed the Afghan government's toll of civilians killed in the bombing raids and said the Taliban held villagers hostage and fought from private homes.

The clash has soured already tense relations between the U.S. military and the Afghan government. In an attempt to soothe ties, America's ambassador to Afghanistan joined President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday in extending condolences to the families of the victims near the site of the fighting. Karl Eikenberry, recently appointed by the Obama administration to spearhead its revised Afghan strategy, also pledged to work to reduce the number of civilian casualties.

Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its military operations and not use airstrikes in villages. He says civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops erode support for the fight against the Taliban, who have made a comeback since they were ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The U.S. military statement said its aircraft destroyed several rural buildings where insurgents were hiding.

Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said eight buildings were targeted, and 13 missiles fired from U.S. military aircrafts during the battle.

The battle began a day after a group of Taliban fighters entered two villages in Bala Buluk, demanding money from villagers and killing three former government employees. An Afghan force was sent in and was ambushed on May 4 by up to 300 insurgents. Two policemen were killed, prompting the provincial governor to ask for U.S. coalition support, the U.S. military statement said.

Before the battle was over, three other policemen died. A U.S. Navy corpsman was wounded while trying to rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, and an Afghan troop was shot in the chest as he attempted to charge a Taliban position

The troops called in F-18 fighter jet airstrikes to rescue the wounded Afghan soldier trapped by Taliban fire, the statement said.

"Following this, one B-1 (bomber) provided fires in coordination with the ground commander on buildings and a tree grove insurgents were firing from or massing in," the statement said.

Sidenstricker said the final bombs were dropped four hours before the battle ended.

NATO-led troops, meanwhile, said eight Afghan civilians were killed in an airstrike by the military alliance in southern Helmand province on Tuesday.

A group of 25 insurgents attacked the NATO soldiers in Nawa, south of Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah. The troops then called in the airstrike which killed the civilians, the alliance said in a statement.

It also alleged that militants used the civilians as human shields. NATO said it would not have carried out the airstrike if it knew civilians were in the area.

Separately, Afghan troops killed 25 militants and recovered their bodies after a battle in Helmand's Nad Ali district Tuesday, said Gen. Ghulam Muhiddin Ghori of the Afghan National Army.

On Wednesday, a roadside bomb outside Kabul killed two Americans - one service member and another civilian working for the military, said Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a U.S. military spokesman.

The vehicle was traveling from Kabul toward Bagram Air Field when it hit the explosive, said Navy Lt. j.g. Thomas Graves, another U.S. military spokesman.