KABUL – President Hamid Karzai ordered a probe Wednesday into allegations by local officials that more than 30 civilians were killed this week in a bombing by U.S.-led troops battling militants in western Afghanistan.
Karzai, currently in the United States, will raise the issue of civilian deaths with President Barack Obama, a statement from Karzai's office said. The two presidents were scheduled to hold their first face-to-face meeting later Wednesday.
Civilian deaths have caused increasing friction between the Afghan and U.S. governments, and Karzai has long pleaded with American officials to reduce the number of civilian casualties in their operations. U.S. and NATO officials accuse the Taliban militants of fighting from within civilian homes, thus putting them in danger.
Local officials said Tuesday that bombing runs called by U.S. forces killed dozens of civilians in Gerani village in Farah province's Bala Buluk district.
A joint U.S.-Afghan delegation left for Farah on Wednesday to investigate the incident, the president's office said.
"President Karzai said that the civilian casualties are unacceptable and he is going to raise the issue with high-level U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama," the statement said.
The U.S. military has already promised a joint investigation with Afghan authorities, after reports of civilian deaths emerged on Tuesday.
The latest fighting broke out Monday soon after Taliban fighters — including Taliban from Pakistan and Iran — massed in Farah province in western Afghanistan, said Belqis Roshan, a member of Farah's provincial council. The provincial police chief, Abdul Ghafar, said 25 militants and three police officers died in that battle near the village of Ganjabad in Bala Baluk district, a Taliban-controlled area near the border with Iran.
Villagers told Afghan officials that they put children, women, and elderly men in several housing compounds in the village of Gerani — about three miles to the east — to keep them safe. But villagers said fighter aircraft later targeted those compounds, killing a majority of those inside, according to Roshan and other officials.
The top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, confirmed that U.S. coalition forces participated in the battle. Julian said five wounded Afghans sought medical treatment at a military base in Farah.
A Western official in Kabul said Marine special operations forces — which fall under the U.S. coalition — had called in the airstrikes. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
Khan said villagers brought bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the province's governor. Khan estimated that villagers brought about 30 bodies.
Farah's hospital treated at least three wounded villagers, including an 11-year-old boy whose chest, arms and shoulders were completely bandaged. A girl named Shafiqa had bandages under her chin. Two of her toes were severed in the fighting.
"We were at home when the bombing started," she told AP Television News. "Seven members of my family were killed."
Khan said villagers told him more than 150 civilians had died, but he said he had no way to know whether that claim was true.
Journalists and human rights workers can rarely visit remote battle sites to verify claims of civilian casualties. U.S. officials say Taliban militants sometimes force villagers to lie and say civilians have died in coalition strikes.
But the villagers' claims Tuesday were bolstered by the wounded at Farah's hospital shown on AP Television News. And Khan's account of several truckloads of bodies taken to Farah city added more weight to the claims.
In remarks Tuesday, Karzai alluded to the problem of civilian casualties without mentioning the bombing deaths. He said the success of the new U.S. war strategy depends on "making sure absolutely that Afghans don't suffer — that Afghan civilians are protected."
"This war against terrorism will succeed only if we fight it from a higher platform of morality," he added in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Asked later to clarify, Karzai said, "We must be conducting this war as better human beings," and recognize that "force won't buy you obedience."
An Afghan government commission previously found that an August 2008 operation by U.S. forces killed 90 civilians in Azizabad, a finding backed by the U.N. The U.S. originally said no civilians died; a high-level investigation later concluded 33 civilians were killed.
After the Azizabad killings, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, announced a directive last September meant to reduce such deaths. He ordered commanders to consider breaking away from a fire-fight in populated areas rather than pursue militants into villages.