KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – At least 60 civilians were killed during NATO operations in a volatile southern area of Afghanistan this week, two government officials and a civilian said Thursday.
If confirmed, the civilian deaths would be the highest caused by Western forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
NATO has said its forces killed 48 militants in heavy fighting in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province Tuesday. The alliance said it only knew of four civilians wounded in the battle but that it had "credible reports" of other casualties.
Kandahar provincial council member Bismallah Afghanmal said 80 to 85 civilians were killed in fighting. A villager, Karim Jan, said 60 to 70 died. Another government official, who asked not to be named because it would "cause me problems," said at least 60 died.
NATO spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig said troops used "precision strikes" against militants who targeted aid deliveries and reconstruction projects in the area.
"Very sadly, civilians continue to get caught up in these engagements with tragic results," Knittig said.
Afghanmal said Taliban fighters ran into civilian homes, which were then targeted by NATO forces.
"With insurgents who regard the population as a form of human shield for themselves it obviously makes life very difficult for us, but it does not stop us from making every effort to ensure that we minimize any problems," said Mark Laity, another NATO spokesman.
The Afghan Defense Ministry was investigating, NATO said.
"An investigation has no meaning," said Afghanmal. "These kinds of things have happened several times, and they only say 'Sorry.' How can you compensate people who have lost their sons and daughters?"
NATO launched a major military operation in the Panjwayi area in September, and the alliance said it killed more than 500 suspected militants. The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Richards, has called "Operation Medusa" a "significant success."
However, there has since been heavy fighting in the area.
"The government and the coalition told the families that there are no Taliban in the area anymore," said Afghanmal. "If there are no Taliban, then why are they bombing the area?"
The worst previous reported incident of civilian deaths from foreign military action took place 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.
Last week, NATO strikes killed nine civilians in a village in the Zhari district of Kandahar province.
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly condemned civilian casualties, and last week urged NATO to take "maximum caution during military operations to avoid harming civilians."
A spokesman for Karzai declined immediate comment Thursday, and the Interior Ministry said it couldn't confirm that civilians were killed in Panjawayi.