KABUL - A NATO jet blasted two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, setting off a huge fireball Friday that killed up to 90 people, Afghan officials said.
The NATO command said a "large number of insurgents" were killed or injured in the pre-dawn attack near the village of Omar Khel in Kunduz province. An Afghan police officer said the 90 dead included about 40 civilians who were siphoning fuel from the trucks.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
The top NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has ordered curbs on airstrikes after a strong backlash among Afghans against the high number of civilians killed in such military operations.
Police Chief Gulam Mohyuddin said Taliban fighters stopped the vehicles as they were about to cross the Kunduz River.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a public affairs officer, said NATO warplanes attacked and destroyed the two tankers after determining that there were no civilians in the area.
She said that NATO and the Afghan government are investigating reports of civilian casualties.
Another NATO spokesman said one reason the fuel tankers were targeted was they are frequently used in suicide attacks.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said insurgents hijacked the trucks as they were headed from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul.
When the hijackers tried to drive them across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads, he said. He said about 500 villagers swarmed the trucks to collect the fuel despite warnings that they might be hit with an airstrike, he said.
Mujahid said no Taliban died in the attack.
Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Omar, who also gave the 90 deaths figure, said a local Taliban commander and four Chechen fighters were among those killed.
Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Humanyun Khmosh, director of the Kunduz hospital, said 12 people were being treated for severe burns. He could not say whether they were civilians or insurgents, although one was a 10-year-old boy.
He said the hospital had only one confirmed death - a truck driver.
In Kabul, the deputy chief of the U.N. mission, Peter Galbraith, said he was "very concerned" by reports of civilian casualties in Kunduz and that all efforts must be undertaken to care for the wounded and compensate families of the dead.
"Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an air strike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present," he said, adding that a U.N. team would be sent to Kunduz to investigate.
Kunduz province had been relatively peaceful until violence began rising earlier this year. German forces who are based there come under almost daily attack, including rockets and mortars at their bases and small arms fire against patrols.
Violence has soared across much of the country since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, shifting the focus of the U.S.-led war on Islamic extremism from Iraq.
Fifty-one U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in August, making it the bloodiest month for American forces there since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Rising casualties during this summer's fighting have undermined support for the war in the U.S., Britain and other allied countries.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the war is worth fighting and signaled for the first time he may be willing to send more troops after months of publicly resisting a significant increase.
At a Pentagon news conference, Gates said Obama's efforts are "only now beginning" to take effect and should be given a chance to succeed.
"I don't believe that the war is slipping through the administration's fingers," Gates said. Later, he added: "I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan."
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Frank Jordans in Kunduz contributed to this report.