Saturday, June 30, 2007

Afghan civilians said killed in clash

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. 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 during the fighting in Helmand province's Gereshk district late Friday 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.

The battle 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......

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