KABUL (Reuters) – An air strike by foreign forces has killed more than 30 people, including civilians, in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, two members of parliament from the area said on Tuesday.
But the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said reports of civilian casualties in the airstrike were wrong. It was not possible to independently verify the conflicting reports due to poor security in the area.
Civilian deaths are a sensitive issue for foreign forces in Afghanistan under the command of the U.S. military and NATO and for President Hamid Karzai’s government.
The raid happened on Monday in a village in Helmand’s Sangin district, Nasima Niyazi, a member of the lower house of the Afghan parliament representing the province, told Reuters.
“More than 30 people have lost their lives and it is said that the Taliban and civilians were amongst those killed,” she said. She did not have any more details about the air strike.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency quoted another parliamentarian from Helmand as saying 60 people had been killed in the strike, but also reported that the provincial police chief said he had no information about the incident.
The Taliban said 40 civilians were killed and 60 wounded.
ISAF strongly denied the reports of civilian casualties. It said it launched an air attack on three vehicles 2.5 km (1.5 miles) south of the village Malmun Cheena.
“The vehicles were positively identified carrying insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles, which fired upon ISAF on Monday afternoon. ISAF positively confirmed one vehicle was destroyed and an estimated 12 insurgents killed,” it said in a statement.
“The air attack took place in an isolated area where there was no housing or civilian activity. There was no evidence of civilian casualties, which would have been clearly seen by ISAF, and there have been no reports by hospitals in the region of any injuries, or requests for medical aid received,” it said.
Both ISAF and U.S.-led coalition troops operate in Helmand, a bastion for Taliban insurgents and the biggest drug-producing region of Afghanistan, the world’s top supplier of heroin.
The strike comes amid spiraling violence in the past two years in Afghanistan, the bloodiest period since U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban’s hardline Islamist government in 2001.
More than 12,000 people, nearly a quarter of them civilians, have been killed by the violence.
Civilian deaths have sparked protests and added to growing frustration among ordinary Afghans that Karzai’s government and its Western backers have not brought security to the country.