HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S.-led coalition forces killed 76 Afghan civilians in western Afghanistan on Friday, most of them children, the Interior Ministry said.
The coalition denied killing civilians. Civilian deaths in military operations have become an emotive issue among Afghans, many of whom feel international forces take too little care when launching air strikes, undermining support for their presence.
“Seventy-six civilians, most of them women and children, were martyred today in a coalition forces operation in Herat province,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Coalition forces bombarded the Azizabad area of Shindand district in Herat province on Friday afternoon, the ministry said. Nineteen of the victims were women, seven of them men and the rest children under the age of 15, it said.
U.S.-led coalition forces denied killing any civilians. They said 30 militants had been killed in an air strike in Shindand district in the early hours of Friday and no further air strikes had been launched in the area later in the day.
Air strikes were called between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. after Afghan and coalition soldiers were ambushed by insurgents while on a patrol targeting a known Taliban commander in 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.
A senior police commander in western Afghanistan confirmed the incident but could not say how many civilians died.
“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 Defence Ministry in Kabul said U.S. special forces and Afghan troops had been carrying out an operation against a commander named 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.”
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.
Meanwhile, soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fired artillery rounds into Pakistan from the eastern province of Paktika on Friday in a coordinated attack with the Pakistani military, the ISAF said.
The rounds were fired at militants across the border who the Pakistani military said were preparing to fire rockets at an ISAF base in Paktika, the ISAF said in a statement.
“Pakistan officers relayed that all rounds were on target, with no civilian casualties,” it said. “ISAF troops were unable to confirm the number of insurgents killed since they were inside Pakistan.”
Additional reporting by Saeed Achakzai; Writing by Jonathon Burch and Jon Hemming; Editing by Andrew Roche