By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, May 26 (Reuters) - A U.S. air strike in western Afghanistan early this month was a disproportionate use of force that killed 97 civilians and no more than two Taliban fighters, an Afghan rights watchdog said in a report on Tuesday.
Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have put the death toll as high as 140 and say the strikes hit houses in two villages in western Farah province in which mostly women and children were hiding.
The U.S. military has acknowledged 20-35 civilians were among 80-95 mostly Taliban fighters killed in the strikes during a May 3 battle in which U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces were attacked. It said Taliban used the villagers as human shields.
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission is the first group not tied to the U.S. military or Afghan government to present a report into the incident.
"This was a reaction with extreme use of force to destroy a group of opponents, and would have been disproportionate even if they were there," Nader Nadery, a commissioner for the group, told a news conference in the Afghan capital.
The group’s initial investigation into Farah’s bombing showed the 97 dead included 65 children and 21 women, he said.
Its investigators found no evidence that any of the victims were armed or that they had been used as human shields, Nadery said, although provincial officials had told the team that two of the dead were Taliban fighters.
With civilian casualties already a source of great tension, the dispute between Afghan and U.S. authorities over the number killed in Farah has stoked popular anger.
Nadery called on the United States to compensate those who lost family members or their homes in the strikes, and said the deaths would not help Washington promote security and stability in Afghanistan.
The issue of civilian deaths, particularly from air strikes, has fuelled resentment towards the almost 80,000 foreign troops in the country fighting a growing Taliban insurgency.
But Afghanistan’s size and difficult terrain means foreign troops must often rely on air power while hunting militants. (Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Paul Tait)