KABUL – An Afghan lawmaker claims that ninety-five Afghan children are among the 140 people killed in a recent U.S.-Taliban battle in western Afghanistan. The U.S. military disputes the claim.
Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the deaths and destruction in the villages of Gerani and Ganjabad in Farah province.
Sixty-five of the reported victims on the list were female, either adults or children, said lawmaker Obaidullah Helali, a lawmaker from Farah and a member of the government's investigative team. If the Afghan toll is correct, it would be the largest case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Greg Julian said "there is no physical proof that can substantiate" the Afghan list of victims. The U.S. has refused to release a number of people it thinks died in the May 4-5 clash in Farah's Bala Baluk district.
Julian said militants are to blame for the deaths because they kept villagers hostage during the fight.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also has said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in the two villages, but it did not provide an overall figure.
President Hamid Karzai has said the strikes were "not acceptable" and estimated that 125 to 130 civilians died.
Afghan members of the delegation investigating the clash delivered condolence payments to victims' families Tuesday, Helali said. The payments — $2,000 for the dead and $1,000 for the wounded — were ordered by Karzai, he said.
Julian suggested that it is the condolence payments that might be one reason for villagers to report these high numbers.
"It's very difficult to determine an exact number and there's a climate that encourages exaggeration," Julian said.
Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its operations. Past incidents have drawn immediate outcries from the government, which contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against the Taliban.
The disputed incident comes as the Obama administration is gearing up to roll out a new strategy for the region, which involves linking success in Afghanistan with security in neighboring Pakistan, where Taliban militants are active along the border.
The U.S. has also pledged long-term nonmilitary efforts here — for example, civilian expertise in farming and other specialties — along with an increase of 21,000 U.S. troops.