KABUL – An American war jet blasted two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing up to 90 people, including insurgents and dozens of civilians who had rushed to the scene to collect fuel, Afghan officials said.
Germany, which called in the 2:30 a.m. airstrike, insisted there were no civilians in the area at the time. Later, however, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged some civilians may have died.
The attack in northern Kunduz province is likely to intensify Afghan public anger over such casualties, which prompted NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal last June to order curbs on airstrikes where civilians are at risk.
Violence has soared across much of the country since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, shifting the focus of the U.S.-led war on Islamic extremism from Iraq. Fifty-one U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in August, the deadliest month for American forces there since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Kunduz, a former Taliban stronghold, had been generally peaceful until insurgent attacks began rising earlier this year — perhaps an effort to control a profitable smuggling route from Tajikistan. Most of the fighting in Afghanistan this summer has been in the south and east, where U.S. and British forces operate. The Germans are responsible for the Kunduz area.
The airstrike occurred a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled for the first time that he may be willing to send more troops after months of publicly resisting a significant increase — despite growing public opposition in the United States to the war.
A large number of civilian casualties could also stoke opposition in Germany to the Afghan mission ahead of the Sept. 27 German national elections. There are 4,050 German soldiers in Afghanistan, and polls show a majority of Germans oppose the mission.
German commanders ordered the airstrike after the vehicles were seized near their base — possibly for a suicide attack against the German camp, according to deputy Defense Minister Thomas Kossendey.
Officials said an unmanned surveillance aircraft was dispatched to the scene before the attack and determined no civilians were in the area.
German officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said the strike took place 40 minutes after the commanders requested it. It was unclear whether civilians began to assemble during that time.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the trucks were headed from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul. When the hijackers tried to drive the trucks across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads, he said.
Villagers swarmed the trucks to collect the fuel despite warnings that they might be hit with an airstrike, Mujahid said, claiming no Taliban fighters died in the attack.
Abdul Moman Omar Khel, member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village where the airstrike happened, said about 500 people from surrounding communities swarmed the trucks after the Taliban invited them to help themselves to the fuel.
"The Taliban called to the villagers, 'Come take free fuel,'" he said. "The people are so hungry and poor."
He said five people were killed from a single family, and a man he knows named Haji Gul Bhuddin lost three sons.
Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Omar said 90 people were killed, including a local Taliban commander and four Chechen fighters.
A senior Afghan police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the dead included about 40 civilians.
The director of the Kunduz hospital, Humanyun Khmosh, said a dozen people, including a 10-year-old boy, were treated for severe burns.
Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and villagers were burying some of those in a mass grave.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sharply criticized the U.S.-led command for allegedly using excessive force in the war against the Taliban, alienating the civilian population. Karzai repeated those charges in last month's still-unresolved presidential election and on Friday announced he was creating a panel to investigate the attack.
"Targeting civilians is unacceptable for us," he said.
Last May, U.S. warplanes struck military targets in the western Farah province, killing an estimated 60 to 65 insurgents. The U.S. said 20 to 30 civilians also died in those attacks. The Afghan government said 140 civilians were killed.
In Kabul, the deputy chief of the U.N. mission, Peter Galbraith, said Friday he was "very concerned" by reports of civilian casualties in Kunduz.
"Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an airstrike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present," he said, adding that a U.N. team would be sent to Kunduz to investigate.
Also Friday, a French soldier was killed and nine others injured when their vehicles were hit by a bomb near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. The death brings the total number of French soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 20.
Spanish authorities said Spanish troops in western Afghanistan killed 13 insurgents and wounded three in a five-hour battle Thursday. There were no Spanish casualties.