BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Provincial Afghan authorities said at least 17 civilians had been killed in bombing raids by U.S.-led forces that Washington says are aimed at rooting out remnants of the Taliban.
Haji Mohammad Wali, spokesman for the government of Helmand province, told Reuters an official of its Baghran district had reported the civilian deaths there after relatives came to the district headquarters.
"The people came crying, saying their relatives had died or were missing," Wali said by telephone from Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.
U.S. military officials told reporters Wednesday that B-52 and B-1 bombers had pounded a mountain ridge in central Afghanistan after ground forces spotted about 25 armed Taliban suspects taking up offensive positions.
Twelve suspects were captured during the operation near the village of Lejay in the Baghran Valley Tuesday, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King told a news briefing at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan.
He said U.S. ground forces called in air support over a period of eight hours after spotting men armed with AK-47s and rocket grenades moving along the ridgeline.
He said he had no information about possible civilian deaths.
Wali said the report of the civilian deaths had been passed on to the Kabul government. He said he had no information on casualties from fresh bombing the area Tuesday night.
Haji Jilani, a resident of Shina Keli village in the Baghran valley, told Reuters he had seen bodies of two women, two children and a man in a riverbed from his house on a mountainside.
MOSTLY WOMEN AND CHILDREN KILLED
According to the reports, there were 17 deaths, mostly women and children, he said.
A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said he did not have any details of casualties. However, he said the government had asked the coalition to avoid bombing during the Eid-al-Adha Muslim holiday, which began Tuesday and runs through Thursday.
"In general, the government prefers they shouldn't bomb in respect of Eid days, unless it is very necessary," Tayab Jawad said. "The government has asked them to avoid bombing during this time."
U.S. military spokesman King said a Danish F-16 dropped a 500 pound GBU-12 bomb, while U.S. B-1 and B-52 bombers dropped 2,000 pound JDAM "smart" bombs during the latest raids.
Asked who the opposing fighters were thought to be, King said: "We believe that they are probably most closely associated with Taliban remnants."
About 13,000 U.S.-led coalition troops are in Afghanistan hunting remnants of the former Taliban regime and the al Qaeda network blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The Afghan government has said that 48 people were killed and 117 wounded in Uruzgan province last July when a U.S. AC-130 gunship attacked a wedding party.
The U.S. military gave a toll of 34 dead and 50 wounded -- mostly women and children -- but said the aircraft had come under hostile ground fire.
King said the operation in Baghran, code-named "Eagle Fury" was continuing, as was another in the neighboring province of Bamiyan.
"The intensity to a certain extent depends upon on the enemy," he said. "If the enemy presents itself in a posture to attack us, then we will engage them."
©2003 Reuters Ltd