HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Villagers brought truckloads of bodies to the capital of a province in Western Afghanistan on Tuesday to prove that scores of civilians had been killed by U.S. air strikes in a battle with the Taliban.
The governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said about 30 bodies had been trucked to his office, most of them women and children. Other officials said the overall civilian death toll may have been much higher, with scores of people feared killed while huddled in houses that were destroyed by U.S. warplanes.
U.S. forces confirmed that a battle had taken place with air strikes and said they were investigating reports of civilian casualties, but were unable to confirm them.
“There was an insurgent attack on an ANA (Afghan National Army) group and the ANA called for assistance, and some coalition troops joined them to help fight this group,” said U.S. military spokesman Colonel Greg Julian. “There was close air support, but I can’t give any detail on the type of aircraft.”
He said U.S. and Afghan officials would head to the site on Wednesday to investigate the reports of civilian deaths.
“Once we get eyes on the ground we will have a better idea of what may have happened.”
Ghulan Farooq, a member of parliament from the province, said he had been told by family members in the Bala Boluk district where the fighting took place that as many as 150 people had died. He said U.S. air strikes had destroyed 17 houses. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.
Lieutenant Colonel Khalil Nehmatullah, commander of an Afghan Army battalion in the province, said: “Unfortunately the Taliban took people into some buildings and forced them to stay in there after the security forces started telling them to evacuate.”
“Arabs and Pakistanis were among the Taliban fighters who were armed with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) ... the ANA entered the scene with help from a unit of U.S. marines, and they were fighting until 11 pm,” he told Reuters. He said he did not know the extent of the civilian casualties.
Amin said the battle in Farah province, a vast desert region on Afghanistan’s western border, began after Taliban guerrillas moved into a village on Monday and executed three former government officials for cooperating with the state.
Before the reports of large numbers of civilian casualties emerged, the governor said four Afghan security forces members and about 25 insurgents had been killed.
The head of public health and hospitals in Farah province, Abdul Jabar Shayeq, said 11 civilians and three policemen had been admitted to hospital with wounds from the fighting.
Jalil Ahmad, a resident in the district, said earlier that some 100 Taliban fighters had taken up positions in residential areas to fight the Afghan and foreign troops.
“Civilian lives are in danger from both sides and they don’t care about it,” Ahmad said. “We beg President (Hamid) Karzai to save our lives.”
Civilian deaths have become a bitter source of friction between Afghan authorities and U.S. forces. Washington says it is working harder this year to limit civilian deaths and investigate reports of such incidents more rapidly after the number of civilians killed by U.S. forces soared last year.
In the worst incident last year, the Afghan government and the United Nations said a U.S. strike killed 90 civilians. Washington initially denied it, but after three months said it had killed 33 civilians as well as 22 people it called militants.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington, where he will meet U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time since Obama’s inauguration. Obama has declared Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan to be Washington’s main military concern.
Last year more than 7,000 people, including 2,000 civilians, died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan, the United Nations and aid agencies say.
The United States plans to more than double its forces to fight the Taliban insurgents this year from 32,000 at the start of the year to 68,000 by the year’s end. Other countries have around 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli, Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in Kabul; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Ralph Boulton