HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition forces killed 30 militants, including a Taliban commander, in an air strike in west Afghanistan, the U.S. military said on Friday, but Afghan officials said there were also civilian casualties.
The air strike was called in after Afghan and coalition soldiers were ambushed by insurgents while on a patrol targeting a known Taliban commander in the western province of Herat, the U.S. military said in a statement.
“Insurgents engaged the soldiers from multiple points within the compound using small-arms and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire,” it said. “The joint forces responded with small-arms fire and an air strike killing 30 militants.”
Saeed Sharif, an elder and member of a local council where the strike took place, told Reuters many civilians were killed.
“Last night, around 2 a.m. some people were attending a holy Koran recitation in Shindand district when Americans started bombing. Tens of civilians were killed,” said Sharif.
The issue of civilian casualties is an emotive one in Afghanistan, feeding a common perception international forces do not take enough care when launching air strikes, and undermining support for their presence in the country.
The U.S. military has denied any civilian casualties in the Herat strike.
A senior police commander in western Afghanistan confirmed the incident but could not say how many civilians were killed.
“More than 30 people have been killed. I cannot say how many of them are civilians,” General Ikramuddin Yawar told Reuters.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kabul said U.S. special forces and Afghan troops were carrying out an operation targeting a commander by the name of Mulla Sidiq who was planning to attack a U.S. base in Herat.
“Twenty-five Taliban were killed, including Sidiq and one other commander,” said spokesman General Zaher Azimi.
“Unfortunately, five civilians were killed in the bombing,” he said.
Afghanistan has seen a surge in violence this year as the hardline Islamist Taliban step up their campaign of guerrilla attacks, backed by suicide and roadside bombs, to overthrow the pro-Western Afghan government and drive out foreign troops.
In another incident, a bomb killed a soldier from the U.S.-led force in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The latest death comes only days after 10 French soldiers were killed in an ambush outside Kabul, the biggest single loss of foreign forces in Afghan combat since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
Separately, Taliban insurgents killed four Afghan border police in a clash in southern Kandahar province, close to the Pakistani border, late on Thursday, senior police official Mohammad Anwar Khan told Reuters.
Two insurgents were also killed in the fighting, he said.
U.S.-led coalition forces also carried out air strikes in Kapisa province on Thursday, northeast of the capital, Kabul, after coming under attack, killing an unspecified number of insurgents, the U.S. military said.