Villagers have insisted that dozens of civilians were killed in a coalition strike in Afghanistan, as rights groups voiced concern about mounting civilian casualties in days of fighting.
The governor of southern Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said Monday that at least 16 civilians were killed early Monday in an air and ground strike in the province's Panjwayi district.
But a teacher in nearby Tulakhan village told AFP by telephone that he saw the bodies of 40 civilians, including children, and that about 50 others had been wounded.
The US-coalition said up to 80 suspected Taliban had died in the raid targeting Azizi village in Panjwayi, adding it was investigating claims of civilian casualties.
The teacher, named Abdullah, said he had assisted in burying 28 people and saw the bodies of 12 others being returned to their home village from other areas.
Eight houses in his village were destroyed in the bombing, several damaged and scores of animals were killed, he said from the area, which was still off-limits to journalists.
Other residents told AFP at the main hospital in Kandahar city on Monday that they had seen scores of dead and wounded.
An elderly man, Attah Mohammad, said he had lost 24 members of his family, including some children.
The strike was the latest incident in nearly a week that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan since the Taliban were removed in 2001 -- clashes that have left around 300 people dead, most of them rebels.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations expressed concern about reports of civilians being caught up in the violence.
The ICRC urged "the parties to exercise constant care in the conduct of military operations," describing the situation in the south as "worsening".
"At all times they must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians against the effects of any attacks," it said.
A UN spokesman in Kabul said Monday that "it is clearly important that everything possible is done to ensure the safety of civilians, as well as ensuring safety for UN and other humanitarian workers."
The insecurity was hampering the world body's work in the south, spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters, but noted there were no plans to evacuate the area.
The coalition said it had targeted only compounds harbouring "extremists".
It said Monday it had called in warplanes after troops who were trying to capture insurgents in the area came under fire, while the governor said some of the militants had hidden in local people's houses.
There have been several major battles with insurgents during the past week, including a clash in Panjwayi last Wednesday and Thursday which Khalid said left 100 Taliban dead and netted some senior Taliban commanders.
The fighting has also claimed the lives of about 50 Afghans, besides those killed in the latest coalition raid, most of them from the fledgling police and army.
Five foreign nationals have been killed: two French special forces soldiers, a Canadian female soldier, an American soldier and one US civilian killed in a suicide bombing in the western city of Herat on Thursday.
Copyright © 2006 AFP