ISLAMABAD - The US military is investigating claims that more than two dozen Afghan civilians were killed during an attack on militants. The issue has badly undermined support for the international coalition and President Hamid Karzai.
As Karzai seeks re-election later this year, he has used the issue of civilian deaths to try to distance himself from the west and has repeatedly called for more care to be taken by coalition troops.
A night-time raid on Monday killed 19 militants, some 30 miles north of Kabul, the US said. But, according to some reports, civilians died. Taliban fighters tend to use ordinary homes as cover, making it difficult for Afghan and international forces to avoid harming innocent bystanders.
The incident occurred in a village in the Tagab valley, a militant hotbed in Kapisa province, when groups of fighters ran out of buildings and opened fire on coalition soldiers, who called in aerial bombardment. The Afghan news agency Pajhwok quoted villagers saying that 25 civilians had been killed. The US military vowed to "determine the truth".
"We take reports of civilian casualties very seriously," said Colonel Greg Julian, the US forces' Afghanistan spokesman. "Our primary effort is to provide security for the Afghan population and we operate in strict accordance with our commander's directive."
Bai Jan, a resident of Anzari village, told Pajhwok that the foreign troops blew up five houses at about 2am.
According to one tribal elder quoted in the report, there were no Taliban or fighters of Hizb-i-Islami, an allied extremist group, in the area. Five of the dead were women, the report said.
American forces said that they had received confirmation from local Afghan officials that only insurgents were killed but that an investigation was continuing. Among the dead, the US said, was the local Taliban commander Mullah Patang. "All the people we killed were militants but there is a formal investigation process we go through," said Lieutenant Commander Walter Matthews.
The Afghan interior ministry also said that it had launched an inquiry.
"We're not sure whether enemies were killed or civilians," said a spokesman, Zemarai Bashary.
Karzai wants greater control over coalition forces, including an order that would ban them from searching Afghan homes.
Haroun Mir, deputy director of Afghanistan's centre for research and policy studies, an independent thinktank, said: "Karzai has made civilian deaths a big issue, he's constantly talking about it. I think it's because he's been criticised by the western media and officials and he feels humiliated, abandoned by the US."