Afghan elders said Sunday that airstrikes had killed 12 civilians in the southern province of Helmand on Saturday night, but an American military spokesman blamed Taliban militants for the civilian deaths.
Exactly what occurred in the remote area Saturday was unclear, with local elders and American military officials giving conflicting accounts. But the charges and countercharges reflected growing tensions in Afghanistan over civilian deaths.
Hajji-Agha Muhammad, an Afghan elder, said airstrikes had killed 12 civilians and wounded 12 others in Kobar, a village in the volatile Musa Qala district, Saturday night. Muhammad said the dead included six children ages 3 to 6 and two women.
American military officials said Afghan and American troops had clashed with Taliban fighters in the area who were guarding a large heroin lab. Helmand produces more opium than any other province in Afghanistan, and Taliban militants are believed to have struck an alliance with drug traffickers in the Musa Qala area.
After American and Afghan forces destroyed the lab, they were ambushed by Taliban fighters, American officials said. During the battle, the Taliban fired 82-millimeter mortars. NATO responded with airstrikes, they said, but no bombs fell on houses.
“We didn’t target any buildings or any structures,” said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for the American forces in Afghanistan. “My guess would be that if any houses were destroyed, it would have been the result of Taliban fire.”
An official at the main hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, said two men, two women and one child arrived from Musa Qala on Sunday with shrapnel wounds. Additional wounded people were taken to nearby hospitals, he said, but he had no exact figures.
The issue of civilian deaths is causing rising anger in Afghanistan this year.
More than 300 Afghan civilians have died in NATO airstrikes, according to one international report. Under growing public criticism, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has repeatedly called for NATO to use restraint and to better coordinate its attacks with Afghan forces.
At the main hospital in Lashkar Gah, a relative of the wounded, Hajji Saeed Mohammad, told Reuters, “We can’t do anything, can’t stay in our villages and can’t go anywhere.” He added, “It is best for us to be killed all at once than being killed every day.”