KABUL, Afghanistan – The American coalition in Afghanistan opened a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation Saturday into an overnight raid that American commanders say killed 15 armed militants but that two Afghan officials say killed 11 civilians.
The accusation of civilian deaths is the latest in a string of incidents over the last year that have raised the ire of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pleaded with foreign military forces to avoid such killings.
A detailed U.S. statement said multiple teams of militants fired on the coalition forces early Saturday during a raid against a Taliban commander in the eastern province of Laghman. The U.S. said a woman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade was among the 15 killed.
"We know the people who were killed were shooting at us," said Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan. "The people who were killed today were running around, maneuvering against our forces, and we killed them."
However, Sayed Ahmad Safi, the spokesman for Laghman's governor, said that government intelligence reports indicated 11 of the dead were civilians, including three children and two females. Two of the dead were militants, he said.
Safi said a government delegation had traveled to the site of the operation, but that it was a rough three hour trip from the provincial capital and that the team wasn't expected to report back until Sunday.
Abdul Khaliq Hussaini, a member of parliament who represents Laghman, said he believed 16 people had been killed, including 11 civilians. The site of the raid — the village of Guloch — lies 40 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul.
Julian said he had no doubts about the U.S. version of the battle, but said a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation had been launched to put the reports of civilian deaths to rest.
"These allegations benefit the insurgency, and we want to clear them up," he said.
Civilian deaths are a hugely sensitive topic between the Afghan government and the U.S. and NATO.
Karzai last week told parliament that the U.S. and NATO have not heeded his calls to stop airstrikes in civilian areas. Karzai has recently sought to have more control over what kinds of activities U.S. and NATO forces can carry out.
The issue also sparks strong emotions among average Afghans and threatens to turn civilians against the international military mission.
"I'm ready to start jihad against the Americans," an unidentified Afghan man told a Kabul TV station during a protest Saturday in the capital of Laghman.
Earlier Saturday, Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council in Laghman, said village elders arrived at his office hours after the early morning operation to complain that the 15 killed were innocent civilians.
During a call from an Associated Press reporter, Rahmzai relayed questions to the village elders directly, who angrily shouted that they would swear on the Koran, the Muslim holy book, that all those killed were civilians. The elders claimed that women and children were among the dead.
The villagers told Rahmzai that they are shepherds and have no ties to militants.
Evaluating competing claims from the U.S. or NATO militaries and Afghan officials or villagers is extremely difficult. Journalists and human rights monitors usually cannot reach the site of a raid because the territory is too dangerous.
Afghan villagers have been known to exaggerate civilian death claims in order to receive more compensation from the U.S. military, and officials have said that insurgents sometimes force villagers to make false death claims.
But the U.S. military has also been known to not fully acknowledge when it killed civilians.
After a battle in August in the village of Azizabad, the U.S. military at first said no civilians were killed. A day later it said about five died, and eventually a more thorough U.S. investigation found 33 civilians were killed. The Afghan government and the U.N. said 90 civilians were killed.
The Afghan government recently sent NATO headquarters a draft agreement that would give Afghanistan more control over future NATO deployments in the country and would prohibit NATO troops from conducting searches of Afghan homes.