KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – U.S.-led airstrikes targeting Taliban militants who had attacked NATO forces slammed into civilian homes in southern Afghanistan, killing both civilians and insurgents, Afghan and Western officials said Saturday.
Like most battles in the dangerous and remote regions of Afghanistan, casualty estimates varied widely.
Local government officials said up to 60 civilians and 35 insurgents had been killed in the fighting in Helmand province’s Gereshk district late Friday. NATO did not give an estimate of casualties, but one Western military official said privately that around eight civilians had been killed.
It was not possible to independently verify the casualty claims.
The U.S. acknowledged some civilians were killed after fighters sought shelter in village homes, a familiar scenario in Afghanistan that has led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent bystanders this year.
The U.S. news release did not say how many civilians were killed.
A British soldier was killed when Taliban fired on coalition forces in the southern village of Qaleh-e-Gaz, Britain’s defense ministry said.
The battle in Gereshk district began when Taliban fighters tried to ambush a joint U.S.-Afghan military convoy late Friday before fleeing into the nearby village of Hyderabad for cover, said Mohammad Hussein, Helmand’s provincial police chief.
Airstrikes targeted the militants in the village, said Dur Ali Shah, the mayor of Gereshk.
Shah said late Saturday that between 50 and 60 civilians and 35 Taliban fighters had been killed. He said the fighters were mostly Arab.
Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said the military had no information “at this time to corroborate numbers that large.” He said NATO would not fire on positions if it knew there were civilians nearby.
“It’s the enemy fighters who willingly fire when civilians are standing right next to them,” he said.
The U.S.-led coalition said the airstrikes were in response to machine gun, mortar and rocker propelled grenade attacks on a joint Afghan-coalition patrol.
“It appears that ANA (Afghan National Army) and coalition forces fired at clearly identified firing positions,” said Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. “Remains of some people who apparently were civilians were found among insurgent fighters who were killed in firing positions in a trench line.”
Belcher accused militants of hiding among civilians.
“We are deeply saddened by any loss of innocent lives,” he said.
Mohammad Khan, a resident of Hyderabad, said seven members of his family, including his brother and five of his brother’s children, were killed by airstrikes.
“I brought three of my wounded relatives to Gereshk hospital for treatment,” he said by phone.
The villagers on Saturday were burying a “lot of dead bodies,” Khan said.
Civilians deaths caused by U.S. and NATO-led troops have infuriated Afghans and prompted President Hamid Karzai to publicly condemn the forces for carelessness and viewing Afghan lives as “cheap.” He has urged restraint and better coordination of military operations with the government, while also blaming the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.
A United Nations tally shows that of 673 civilian deaths this year, 314 were caused by international or Afghan security forces, and 279 by insurgents. A similar Associated Press count, though lower, shows the same trend: 213 killed by the U.S. or NATO and 180 by the Taliban.
Overall, the AP counts more than 2,800 people killed this year. The tally, based on Western and Afghan official data, puts the violence far ahead of last year, when about 4,000 died.
Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said during a visit to Kabul that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties, and blamed such deaths on Taliban tactics.
“The Taliban … make every effort to cause civilian casualties and to create situations where we might not be able to avoid civilians casualties,” Downer said.
“It is very, very foolish for anybody, except of course for those that support the Taliban … to try to create some sort of moral equivalent between,” NATO and the militants, he said.
In other violence:
â€¢ Five “innocent civilians” including women and children were killed and eight wounded by rocket attacks in Kunar province, said Gov. Shalezai Dedar.
â€¢ A suicide car bomber detonated himself near a U.S. convoy in Nangarhar province, killing only himself, said Ghafor Khan, a police spokesman.
â€¢ In Helmand’s Sangin district, NATO-led and Afghan troops clashed with Taliban fighters on Friday, leaving 15 militants dead, said Ezatullah Khan, a district chief.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.