KABUL, (AP) – The U.S. military said Wednesday at least 20 civilians and 60 insurgents died in a disputed U.S.-Taliban clash earlier this month, contradicting the Afghan government’s assertion that 140 civilians were killed.
Another airstrike by NATO-led forces killed eight Afghan civilians following a battle with militants in southern Helmand province on Tuesday, the military alliance said.
On Wednesday a roadside bomb near Kabul killed two Americans — one service member and a civilian, the U.S. military said.
Preliminary findings from the disputed May 4-5 clash in western Afghanistan could not conclusively determine the number of people killed during the battle in Bala Buluk district of Farah province, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the death and destruction in two villages in Bala Buluk, but it is unclear exactly how many people died there and under what circumstances.
The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead. A list of names provided by villagers cites at least 60 women killed.
But U.S. investigators found that 60-65 Taliban fighters died in the battle and “at least 20-30 civilians were killed,” said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
The statement detailing the findings cautioned that “a review of the physical evidence is inconclusive in determining the exact number of civilian and insurgent casualties.”
The U.S. military has continuously disputed the Afghan government’s toll of civilians killed in the bombing raids, saying the Taliban held villagers hostage and fought from private homes.
The clash has soured already tense relations between the U.S. military and the Afghan government. In an attempt to soothe ties, America’s top envoy in Afghanistan joined President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday in extending their condolences to the families of the victims near the site of the fighting.
The U.S. military statement said its aircraft destroyed several rural buildings where insurgents were regrouping after the fight in Bala Buluk, in which some 300 militants participated.
Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said eight buildings were targeted, and 13 missiles were fired from U.S. military aircraft during the battle.
Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its military operations and not use airstrikes in villages. He says civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops erode support for the fight against the Taliban, who have made a comeback after they were ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
On Tuesday, Karzai urged America to distinguish between villagers and militants.
“All those people who wear a turban and have local clothes are not Taliban,” Karzai told the gathering. U.S. troops “should cut down bombardment on them,” he said.
NATO-led troops, meanwhile, said eight Afghan civilians were killed in an airstrike by the military alliance in southern Helmand province on Tuesday.
NATO soldiers were attacked by a group of 25 insurgents in the Nawa, south of Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, and they called in air support.
“Tragically, it is believed that eight civilians were killed as a result of the airstrike,” a NATO statement said.
It also alleged that militants used the civilians as human shields. NATO said it would not have carried out the airstrike if it knew civilians were in the area.