KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. air strikes earlier this month killed 140 villagers, an Afghan government investigation concluded on Saturday, putting Kabul starkly at odds with the U.S. military’s account.
The official death toll, announced by the Afghan Defense Ministry, makes the bombing the deadliest incident for civilians since U.S. forces began fighting the Taliban in 2001, and is likely to worsen anger over the presence of foreign troops.
A copy of the government’s list of the names, ages and father’s names of each of the 140 dead was obtained by Reuters earlier this week. It shows that 93 of those killed were children — the youngest eight days old — and only 22 were adult males.
“No other news makes me as sad and sorrowful as incidents of civilian casualties during military operations,” the Defense Ministry statement quoted President Hamid Karzai as saying.
The Afghan government paid the relatives of victims the equivalent of about $2,000 for those who were killed and $1,000 for 25 others wounded, it said.
U.S. aircraft bombed villages in the Bala Boluk district of Afghanistan’s western Farah province on May 3 after U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces became involved in a firefight with Taliban militants. According to villagers, families were cowering in houses when the U.S. aircraft bombed them.
The incident has prompted anger across Afghanistan toward Western troops, and caused Karzai to demand a halt to all air strikes, a plea that Washington has rebuffed.
The U.S. military says it believes the death toll was lower than the official Afghan figure, but says it cannot provide a figure of its own because the dead were quickly buried.
It says the Taliban were to blame for deliberately putting villagers in harm’s way to create outrage over civilian deaths, and some names in the government’s list of victims may be fake. According to the military’s version of events, many of the dead may have been fighters, and some civilians may have been killed by militants throwing grenades, rather than by air strikes.
Asked if the dispute over the death toll would cause further difficulties between the troops and their Afghan hosts, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Greg Julian said: “It’s something we will discuss.”
Julian said two U.S. military investigations were now under way, one ordered by commanders in Afghanistan immediately after the incident and another ordered more recently by U.S. Central Command, responsible for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
A U.S. general had been sent from outside Afghanistan to head up the second investigation, Julian said. He was not able to say how long either investigation would take to issue findings.
Under new procedures instituted late last year to reduce the anger caused by civilian deaths, the military tries to coordinate its investigations into such incidents with Afghan authorities.
In several smaller cases in recent months the sides have quickly agreed in public about what happened, and U.S. troops have admitted making mistakes and apologized.
But there were immediate signs in the Farah case that Afghan and U.S. officials were not going to agree. A joint U.S.-Afghan statement issued five days after the bombing said only that some civilians were killed, but not how many.
Writing by Peter Graff, editing by Mark Trevelyan