LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan authorities were checking on Friday reported heavy civilian casualties after air strikes by Western forces in the southern province of Helmand.
At least 20 wounded civilians were brought to a main hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, Helmand’s police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said.
“I can confirm there were heavy bombardments,” Andiwal told Reuters by phone. “We have heard of heavy casualties too and have sent a team to investigate this.”
A provincial lawmaker in Kabul, Mohammad Anwar, also received reports of high civilian casualties.
In the Lashkar Gah hospital, Shokhi Khan, a relative of one of the wounded, said several hundred civilians were killed or wounded in the strikes.
He said people had gathered for picnics and to go to a shrine in Baghran district north of Lashkar Gah on Thursday when the raids started.
A group of wounded civilians were also brought to a hospital in neighboring Kandahar. Journalists were barred from filming or talking to them inside the wards.
But several family members of victims talked to journalists and gave accounts similar to Khan’s.
One, Haji Hakim Jan, a 27-year-old barefooted man, said he lost four of his brothers.
“I had another brother of mine and an eight-year-old sister wounded in the bombing,” Jan said, adding that the deaths would alienate civilians from Western troops and make people join the Taliban insurgents.
Both NATO and the U.S.-led coalition forces operate in Helmand, a long-time bastion for Taliban guerrillas.
The U.S. military said in a statement late on Thursday that coalition forces conducted a precision air strike against two “notorious Taliban commanders” conducting a leadership meeting in a remote area of the Baghran district on Thursday.
The statement said the fate of the pair was unknown.
Some residents and an official said the bombings occurred as a huge crowd of people had gathered to watch a public execution by Taliban fighters.
A Taliban spokesman said there was no public execution and those killed were all civilians attending a ceremony at a shrine.
There was no independent verification of the reported accounts from either side.
If confirmed, the deaths would be the highest civilian casualties caused in a single air raid by foreign troops since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001.
More than 350 civilians have been killed in operations by foreign forces already this year in Afghanistan, according to government officials and aid workers.
Civilian deaths are a sensitive issue for President Hamid Karzai and foreign forces fighting the Taliban and their allies.
Already facing criticism over perceived lack of development, rampant corruption and crime, growing insecurity and a booming drugs trade, Karzai has warned civilian deaths would have dire consequences for his government and the foreign troops.
Separately on Thursday, four policemen were killed and four wounded when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle in the eastern province of Kunar, said provincial spokesman Shah Wasi Mangal.
Also in the east, one soldier with the coalition force was killed and three were wounded when a roadside bomb hit a coalition convoy in the province of Nuristan, a media coordinator for the force said.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar