LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (AFP) – Anti-Taliban air strikes by US- and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan killed 65 villagers including children, a local official said Saturday, amid growing anger here over civilian deaths.
The toll from Friday’s operation in the southern province of Helmand given by a district mayor was the highest since 2001, when US-led forces used heavy bombing in their campaign to drive the extremist Taliban from power.
It was impossible to independently verify the number of civilians killed in Girishk district, as the area is remote and difficult to access, but local residents also claimed that scores had been killed and wounded.
Tensions are already high here over the number of ordinary people killed in operations against Taliban insurgents. President Hamid Karzai last week accused foreign soldiers of an “extreme use of force.”
“The finding of our investigations about the civilian casualties in Girishk district so far is that 65 civilians including women, children and men have been killed,” district mayor Dur Alisha told AFP.
Thirty-five Taliban were also killed, he said.
The coalition has acknowledged there were civilian casualties in Friday’s strikes, saying some dead bodies were found in trenches with those of slain militants.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was aware there were “probably” some civilian casualties, but suggested the toll might be much lower.
“We have no evidence to corroborate some of the large numbers we have seen reported in the press,” Major John Thomas said, adding: “But even one civilian dead is one too many.”
An AFP photographer saw some of the wounded admitted to a clinic in the town of Girishk, about 15 kilometres (nine miles) south of the bombed area, and in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Many were children.
“Six houses have been bombed, three of them have been reduced to rubble,” a local named Feda Mohammad said, claiming about 100 were dead and wounded.
“People are still busy bringing out the dead from under the rubble, there are funerals at various places,” he said.
The air strikes were called into the area, near the village of Haidar Abad, after intense fighting Friday in which troops had come under heavy attack, the coalition said.
The planes targeted rebel mortar-firing points, observation posts, compounds and a trench system.
“All enemy positions were destroyed in the engagement,” it said in a statement.
In a survey afterwards, “remains of some people who apparently were civilians were found among insurgent fighters who were killed in firing positions in a trench line,” spokesman Major Chris Belcher said.
“Insurgents are continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat with friendly forces,” he said.
Police said 25 civilians were killed in air strikes in the same area a week ago, including nine women and three young children.
The Taliban have killed hundreds of people this year in suicide bombings and other attacks.
But the number of civilians killed by foreign forces has raised alarm. An umbrella group of non-government organisations last week put the toll at 250 dead.
Karzai said angrily last week that “indiscriminate and unprecise” operations by foreign forces could no longer be tolerated.
In another incident involving civilians, six people were killed in the eastern province of Kunar on Saturday in a barrage of rockets fired by Taliban, Chawkay district chief Ghulam Nabi said.
Elsewhere, an ISAF soldier was killed and another wounded battling Taliban in the south of the country, the force said.
Afghan officials said 15 Taliban, an Afghan soldier and a policemen were killed in various incidents around the country.