KABUL, Afghanistan – An Afghan human rights group said Saturday that at least 88 people were killed in a battle between U.S.-led coalition forces and militants in western Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai condemned the violence and said most of the dead were civilians. The U.S. coalition said it would investigate the claims of civilian deaths.
An Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission researcher visited Azizabad — the village in Herat province where the airstrikes took place early Thursday — and found 88 people had died, 15 houses were destroyed and others were damaged.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, the group's commissioner, said the information was preliminary and that the group would publish a final report. He did not provide a breakdown of how many of the 88 were civilians or militants.
He said 20 women were among the dead, and that the rest were men and children. The Interior Ministry has said that 76 civilians were killed, including 50 children under the age of 15. Karzai's office said at least 70 civilians died.
Karzai, lamenting that his efforts to get the U.S. and NATO to prevent civilian deaths had gotten nowhere, said the Afghan government would soon announce "necessary measures" to prevent civilian casualties, but provided no details.
U.S. coalition spokeswoman Rumi Nielson-Green said Saturday that the operation was led by Afghan National Army commandos, with support from the coalition.
The operation was launched after an intelligence report that a Taliban commander, Mullah Siddiq, was inside the compound presiding over a meeting of militants, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.
Siddiq was one of those killed during the raid, Azimi said.
Originally the coalition said the battle killed 30 militants, but Nielson-Green said that five civilians — two women and three children connected to the militants — were among the dead.
"Obviously there's allegations and a disconnect here. The sooner we can get that cleared up and get it official, the better off we'll all be," said U.S. coalition spokesman 1st Lt. Nathan Perry. "We had people on the ground."
Ghulam Azrat, 50, the director of the middle school in Azizabad, said he collected 60 bodies Friday morning after the bombing.
"We put the bodies in the main mosque," he told The Associated Press by phone, sometimes pausing to collect himself in between tears. "Most of these dead bodies were children and women. It took all morning to collect them."
Azrat said villagers on Saturday threw stones at Afghan soldiers who tried to give food and clothes to them. He said the soldiers fired into the crowd and wounded eight people, including one child critically wounded.
"The people were very angry," he said. "They told the soldiers, 'We don't need your food, we don't need your clothes. We want our children. We want our relatives. Can you give it to us? You cannot, so go away."'
A spokesman for Afghan police in western Afghanistan, Rauf Ahmadi, confirmed that the demonstration took place against the soldiers, who he said fired into the air. Ahmadi said two Afghans were wounded by the gunfire.
The competing claims by the U.S. coalition and the two Afghan ministries were impossible to verify because of the remote and dangerous location of the battle site.
Complicating the matter, Afghan officials are known to exaggerate civilian death claims for political payback, to qualify for more compensation money from the U.S. or because of pressure from the Taliban.
More than 3,400 people — mostly militants — have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to figures from Western and Afghan officials.