KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Airstrikes by NATO helicopters hunting Taliban fighters ripped through three dried-mud homes in southern Afghanistan as villagers slept early Wednesday, killing 13 people and wounding 15 others, residents said.
Shellshocked, angry residents condemned the attack, which set back NATO's hopes of winning local support for their tough counterinsurgency campaign.
"I am not Taliban! We are not Taliban!" villager Gulab Shah shouted by the rubble of the ruined houses.
The 2 a.m. raid in the Kandahar province's Zhari district took place only a kilometer (half a mile) from the scene of September's Operation Medusa, one of the most ferocious battles between Western forces and insurgents since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that Wednesday's Kandahar operation was believed to have caused "several" civilian casualties.
It said the operation was meant to detain people involved in roadside bomb attacks in Panjwayi district, which borders Zhari.
NATO said that it regretted any civilian casualties, and that it makes "every effort" to minimize the risk of collateral damage.
Residents put the death toll at 13, four of them women. Provincial Gov. Asadullah Khan, who traveled to Ashogho on Wednesday, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Kandahar, said nine were killed.
Since late 2001, there have been numerous incidents of civilians killed in military operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, although U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces say they go to extreme lengths to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. They accuse insurgents of blending in with local populations while attacking foreign and Afghan soldiers.
Many other civilians have been killed in Taliban attacks, scores of them in recent suicide bombings.
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly demanded that NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces take more care when conducting military operations in residential areas to avoid civilian casualties, which in turn undermine his government's already weak standing in parts of the country.
Khan called Karzai on his cell phone from the village, and the president, Khan said, expressed his sympathy. "He told them how he hurt for them and how sad he was for their loss," Khan said.
Giant pieces of mud packed with straw littered the narrow lane running through the village. One home had only a single wall standing. A hole was ripped through the middle of another.
Six-year-old Bibi Farida, her red hair was matted with dirt, fidgeted and bit her scarf as she described the assault in a near-whisper. "I cried. I just cried."
The villager Shah, his green, baggy pants hiked up past his ankles -- the sign of a deeply conservative man -- gestured toward the destroyed homes:
"If the foreign soldiers were so smart that they knew there were Taliban here, why didn't they see the women and children who were sleeping? Why do they want to kill us? How can they help us rebuild if they want to kill us? Maybe they should leave," he shouted.
Khan said it seemed clear from the villagers that there had not been Taliban in their village when the bombing occurred.
"But it is hard to know when the Taliban are moving around from one place to another, he said. "But it seems they weren't here."
He has promised to rebuild the homes.
Walking away from the angry villagers, Khan whispered to himself as he climbed into his car: "And how are we supposed to bring security to the country with this kind of thing happening?"
Elsewhere on Wednesday, a rocket hit a house during a nighttime clash between suspected Taliban insurgents and NATO and Afghan security forces in Helmand province's Grishk district, 135 miles west of Kandahar city, police said.
A resident said 13 villagers, including women and children, died.
At least one Taliban militant was killed and three police wounded in Tajikai village, said provincial police chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhel.
Afghan police called in NATO air support during the clash, which started about 10 p.m. on Tuesday and lasted until 2 a.m. Wednesday, Malakhel said.
"A civilian home was hit by a rocket, but it's unsure which side fired it," he said. "There were some civilian casualties."
Abdul Rehman, a resident in the village contacted by phone, said a rocket fired from an aircraft hit a home, killing 13 people inside.
Rehman said relatives of the dead told him all those inside the dried-mud house -- five women, five children and three men -- were killed, including the house's owner, Nabi Khel.
Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a NATO spokesman, said alliance jets and helicopters fired rockets and dropped bombs on Taliban positions in the area after 2 a.m. on Wednesday, but could not confirm that they hit a civilian house.
"For the moment, it's impossible to substantiate that claim," Chalk said.
He said Taliban had been using mortars in the area. About 100 families live in the farming village there, Tajikai.
Southern Afghanistan this year has faced the deadliest spate in violence in the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces five years ago, as newly deployed NATO troops have battled resurgent militants. In September's Operation Medusa, NATO reported it had killed more than 500 suspected Taliban fighters.
The tough military action has brought with it a risk of civilian deaths. In May, 17 villagers were killed when coalition warplanes attacked Taliban forces in Kandahar province. The U.S. military, which said dozens of militants also died in the fighting, expressed regret over the deaths.
The worst reported incident of civilian deaths came in July 2002, when a U.S. airstrike in Uruzgan province killed 46 civilians and wounded 117, many of them celebrating at a wedding party.