KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – An airstrike by coalition aircraft on a rebel stronghold in southern Afghanistan killed up to 80 suspected Taliban militants, the coalition said Monday. The local governor and eyewitnesses said a number of civilians also died.
There were 20 confirmed and 60 unconfirmed Taliban casualties in the attack on the village of Azizi in Kandahar province late Sunday and early Monday, according to a coalition statement.
At a local hospital, wounded residents recounted how helicopters had bombed a school where the militants had gathered. The eyewitnesses said after the initial strike, the aircraft tracked some militants to mud homes and opened fire.
The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said at least 16 civilians had been killed in the attack with another 16 civilians wounded.
"These sort of accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban are hiding in homes," he told reporters. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban."
U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins said, "It's common that the enemy fights in close to civilians as a means to protect its own forces.
"We targeted a Taliban compound and we're certain we hit the right target," he told the AP.
Another spokesperson, Lt. Tamara Lawrence, said the estimate of 80 militants killed was based on "an educated assessment of the area," but only 20 had been fully confirmed.
She said A-10 Thunderbolt warplanes were used in the night attack — although one villager claimed he saw helicopters. The A-10 Thunderbolt is aircraft designed for close air support of ground forces, and Lawrence confirmed that there were coalition troops on the ground near Azizi during the attack.
At Kandahar city's Mirwaise Hospital, one man, with blood smeared over his clothes and turban, said insurgents had been hiding in an Islamic religious school, or madrassa, in the village after fierce fighting in recent days.
"Helicopters bombed the madrassa and some of the Taliban ran from there and into people's homes. Then those homes were bombed," said Haji Ikhlaf, 40. "I saw 35 to 40 dead Taliban and around 50 dead or wounded civilians."
Another survivor from the village, Zurmina Bibi, who was cradling her wounded 8-month-old baby, said about 10 people were killed in her home, including three or four children.
"There were dead people everywhere," she said, crying.
A doctor, Mohammed Khan, said he had treated 10 people from the village. Moments later, a pickup vehicle pulled up at the hospital with five men lying wounded in the back.
It was not possible for reporters to reach Azizi village because police and foreign troops had blocked off the area, which is about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar.
The village is also known by the name Hajiyan. It is made up of about 30-35 large mud-brick compounds, each housing an extended family with up to 50 members. The village has a mosque and one madrassa, where boys study. It has no electricity and relies on wells for water.
The Taliban resurgence, despite the presence of more than 30,000 foreign troops, including 23,000 from the United States in Afghanistan, has halted postwar reconstruction work in many areas and raised fears for this country's future.
Meanwhile in other violence, Mohammed Ali Jalali, the former governor of eastern Paktika province, was found dead after being kidnapped Sunday, local police chief Abdul Rehman Surjung said. Jalali was a respected tribal elder and a supporter of President Hamid Karzai.
A war of words between Islamabad and Kabul over the burst of violence escalated, with Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam saying her country shouldn't be blamed for the bloodshed.
"The Afghan government's failure to deal with the situation cannot be placed at Pakistan's door," she said at a weekly news conference.
On Sunday, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told reporters in Kabul that Taliban leaders are in Pakistan and that "the movement and the communication during these terrorist attacks" comes from the Pakistan side of the border.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.