KABUL (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed more than 220 suspected Taliban militants in strikes in southern Afghanistan last week, the U.S. military said on Monday, the biggest insurgent toll reported in recent weeks.
But several residents and a lawmaker said scores of civilians had died in the operation in the Sangin district of Helmand province, the latest allegation of civilian deaths as fighting intensifies across the nation this summer.
“There is basically no Taliban (killed). The Taliban fire and then escape and then these people (foreign troops) come and bombard. Three hundred people have been killed and wounded,” said lawmaker Dad Mohammad Khan, who is also a former provincial intelligence chief.
Several residents rang a Reuters reporter to say that more than 70 civilians were killed in air strikes by foreign forces in Sangin.
U.S. military spokesman Nathan Perry said he was not aware of any civilian deaths.
“The operation is mostly wrapped up. The troops killed more than 220 militants,” he said.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst level this year, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001
On Monday, a suicide bomber hit a convoy of NATO forces in the northern city of Kunduz but caused no major casualties, a provincial official said. One passerby was wounded.
The four-day operation in Helmand was launched after militants attacked a military convoy carrying equipment for a power-supply dam in the Kajaki area.
“Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces were attacked repeatedly with small arms and heavy-weapons fire during multiple engagements,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
“The soldiers responded with small-arms fire, heavy-weapons and close air support, eliminating the militant threats.”
There were no military casualties in the fighting in the area between Sangin and Kajaki districts, Perry said.
The Taliban were not immediately available for comment, making it difficult to assess how big a blow the deaths of the 220 fighters would be. In the past they have accused foreign forces of making exaggerated claims.
On Monday, hundreds of protesters blocked a road in Kabul accusing U.S.-led troops of killing three members of a family, including two children, in a raid earlier in the day.
NATO and U.S. military officials could not be reached for comment on the allegation, the latest in a string of incidents that have angered Afghans and caused a split between the Afghan government and foreign troops.
Residents said U.S.-led troops carried out a pre-dawn raid in Hud Kheil area in the eastern quarter of Kabul, killing a man identified by neighbors as Noorullah and two of his sons.
“They threw hand grenades on one house and killed three family members,” Sulaiman, a resident, said. Noorullah’s wife was wounded, he said.
Local television showed footage of bodies and a damaged house.
“Are these two children al Qaeda?” an angry resident asked as the bodies were taken for burial.
Several U.S. and NATO military bases are located in the area. Three people were taken away by the troops, residents said.
President Hamid Karzai last week ordered a review of foreign troops in Afghanistan after his administration said 96 civilians were killed in a coalition air raid in western Herat.
The U.S. military said it had targeted militants and that an investigation was being carried out.
More than 500 civilians have been killed during operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants so far this year, according to the Afghan government and some aid groups.