Afghans: 62 Taliban, 45 civilians dead

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A local investigation into airstrikes that slammed into Afghan homes where Taliban fighters sought shelter found that 62 insurgents and 45 civilians were killed, two Afghan officials said Sunday.

A suicide attack in the same region killed a NATO soldier, officials said.

President Hamid Karzai ordered a six-man team to conduct a more thorough investigation into the dozens of deaths in Helmand province, said Sher Mohammad Akhanzada, a member of parliament from the province.

NATO, which has admitted some civilians were killed in the battle late Friday but says the number is far fewer than 45, welcomed Karzai’s order.

“We will cooperate in any way that we can,” said Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. “We don’t mean to trivialize any of those who died but we want to make it clear that we at this point believe the numbers are a dozen or less.”

Civilian deaths have infuriated Afghans. Karzai has condemned the forces for carelessness and viewing Afghan lives as “cheap.” He has also blamed the Taliban for using civilians as human shields.

A U.N. tally shows that of 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 almost 2,800 people killed this year in insurgency-related violence, mostly militants. The tally, based on Western and Afghan official data, puts the violence far ahead of last year, when about 4,000 died.

A local investigating team was sent to Helmand province’s Gereshk district, where fighting took place between insurgents and Western forces late Friday, said Dur Ali Shah, the mayor of Gereshk, and Mohammad Hussein Andewal, the provincial police chief.

Both said the investigation on Saturday found that 62 insurgents had been killed, a number that Thomas said “seems like it could be true.” The Afghan officials also said that 45 civilians were killed.

Because of the battle site’s remote location, it was impossible to independently verify the casualty claims. Afghan officials said fighter jets and ground forces were still patrolling the region and that the fighting continued into Sunday.

A suicide attacker on foot blew himself up near a convoy of British forces in Gereshk district Sunday, an AP reporter at the scene said. Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry confirmed that one NATO soldier was killed and several soldiers and civilians wounded in the attack.

In other violence, a suicide car bomber killed one Afghan soldier and wounded eight others Sunday in the central province of Wardak, the Interior Ministry said.

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