KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday ordered an investigation into new reports that dozens of civilians had been killed by NATO operations against the Taliban, an issue that has frequently lead to violent protests.
Haji Mohammed Hassan, chief of Khogyani district in Nangahar province, said he had heard reports of dozens of civilians killed in two separate incidents on Thursday.
A statement from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the alliance was aware of the reports.
“The president was saddened by the reports of civilian casualties in Khogyani and has instructed the authorities to investigate the incident immediately and thoroughly,” a statement from Karzai’s office said.
More than nine years after the ousting of the Taliban, civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers, whose 150,000 troops are engaged in an increasingly bloody war with insurgents.
District chief Hassan said in one incident on Thursday, 14 villagers were carrying the body of a flood victim for burial in their home village when they were bombed by NATO planes.
In a separate incident in the same district, villagers said an ISAF air raid killed 32 people, Hassan said.
In a statement detailing clashes with insurgents in the same district, ISAF said it was “aware of civilian casualty allegations” and was conducting an investigation.
Earlier on Thursday, the Afghan government said a new investigation showed 39 civilians, all women or children, were killed in a NATO rocket attack last month — fewer than first reported but dozens more than foreign forces have conceded.
ISAF said it had been checking reports of civilian deaths since the government first said that over 50 people were killed by a rocket strike in southern Helmand province. An ISAF spokesman said he had no information about any probe and could not comment on the 39 deaths reported by Karzai’s office.
ISAF previously said an initial assessment showed six people died in an incident in the area and at the time in question, and that a “majority” were insurgents.
Those killed in the rocket were civilians who had crammed in a house after fleeing a clash between the Taliban and joint Afghan and foreign forces, a presidential office statement said.
“Subsequently, one rocket hit the house in which 39 women and children were killed and four wounded,” it said.
Scores of civilians have also been killed in Taliban attacks aimed at government and foreign forces in the past years.
The latest reports coincided with the publication last week by the whistleblower group WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of classified U.S. documents which cast a new light on operations by foreign forces and the plight of civilians.
WikiLeaks described a pattern with thousands of unreported civilian deaths in the near nine-year-old war.
Some previous incidents have been met by denials from ISAF, followed by suggestions the dead may have been insurgents before conceding some civilian casualties.
In the worst case of the war, ISAF forces last year bombed compounds in Gerani, Farah province, believing they housed a contingent of Taliban insurgents.