KABUL (Reuters) - NATO and U.S. airstrikes have killed scores of Afghan civilians this week, residents and officials said on Saturday, deaths likely to deepen discontent with foreign forces and the Western-backed Afghan government.
NATO-led and U.S. forces said there were heavy clashes in Farah province in western Afghanistan and Kunar province in the east, and that troops in both places had called for air support.
Several residents and the head of a district council in Farah said an air attack in the Bala Boluk area had killed 108 civilians.
“Women and children have been killed and 13 houses destroyed,” said Bala Boluk council head Haji Khudairam. “In the bombing, in total, 108 civilians have been killed.”
“We are asking the government to send a delegation to see for itself the civilian deaths,” said Faizullah, a resident.
The governor and police chief for Farah province both declined to confirm or deny the reports of civilian deaths.
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the separate U.S. force in Afghanistan to coordinate more closely with his troops to curb a spate of civilian deaths from airstrikes.
But Western unwillingness to accept casualties among their own soldiers and a shortage of ground troops means commanders often turn to air power to beat the Taliban, and that almost inevitably leads to civilians deaths, military analysts say.
Casualties are also boosting Taliban numbers, analysts say.
Afghan troops backed by coalition soldiers defeated an attempted Taliban ambush in Farah on Saturday, a U.S. statement said. The troops “killed over 30 insurgent fighters with accurate small arms fire and precision air strikes”, it said.
“All fires were directed by the ground force commander who carefully evaluated risk of collateral damage against the military necessity,” the statement said.
Eleven Afghan police were also killed in the fighting in Farah, said a provincial official who declined to be named.
Residents of Kunar and provincial officials said airstrikes there killed three dozen civilians.
Eleven civilians, including nine family members of a man called Mohammad Nabi, were killed in an airstrike on Thursday after two U.S.-led troops were killed in a clash with the Taliban, residents and officials said.
Then 25 more civilians were killed in another airstrike on Friday while they buried the bodies of those killed on Thursday.
“In total from two days of bombing, 36 civilians have been killed,” said Shafiqullah Khatir, a Red Crescent employee.
Abdul Saboor Allahyar, a senior police officer in Kunar, said airstrikes killed 25 civilians and wounded 14.
ISAF said airstrikes killed “a number” of guerrillas in Kunar on Friday, but denied there were any civilian casualties.
“Contrary to some press reports, at this time there is no reason for us to believe that there are any civilian casualties of any type,” said ISAF spokesman Major John Thomas.
The Afghan Defence Ministry said 37 “terrorists” were killed in Kunar in a joint operation by Afghan and coalition forces. It said initial reports indicated all those killed were armed men, but it was checking reports of civilian deaths.
More than 300 civilians have been killed by Western air strikes in Afghanistan this year, according to Afghan officials and international aid groups.
U.S. and NATO military officials say their tactics minimize civilian casualties and accuse the Taliban of using villagers as human shields and sheltering from raids in people’s homes.
Taliban mortar bombs landed in a civilian compound in a village in Helmand province on Saturday. “Extremists have continued to show a disregard for the safety of Afghans,” a U.S. spokesman said.
As well as the danger of alienating Afghans, the other major threats to Western forces are suicide and roadside bombs, against which they have few defenses.
A suicide car bomber wounded four Canadian troops near the southern city of Kandahar on Saturday, a Canadian army spokesman said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Additional reporting by Finbarr O'Reilly in Kandahar