KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – An Afghan human rights group said Friday an estimated 34 civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike on a southern village this week — far higher than the official toll.
Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the director of the Kandahar office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Afghans who had fled their small village of Azizi told him that about 25 family members were killed in one mud-brick home and that nine were killed in the village's religious school, or madrassa.
About 11 civilians were wounded in total, he said, and villagers reported burying about 35 "unknown people" — meaning militants from outside their area.
The estimate of 34 deaths more than doubles the number of dead civilians given by the governor of Kandahar and President Hamid Karzai, who said that 16 people had died. The U.S.-led coalition has said their estimate of the number of deaths was in line with the governor's.
Haji Ikhlaf, a resident of Azizi who was wounded in the attack, told The Associated Press earlier this week that villagers had buried 26 civilians.
The coalition has said that up to 80 militants were killed, although 60 of those fatalities were unconfirmed. It appeared to be one of the deadliest airstrikes since U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.
Karzai has called for an investigation into the airstrike and on Wednesday urged the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to make "every effort" to ensure civilians' safety.
The U.S. military has said it takes "extraordinary measures" to protect Afghan civilians, but that Taliban militants were firing on coalition forces from inside the villagers' homes, and that troops had the right to return fire in defense.
Noorzai said he hasn't been able to visit Azizi to take a survey of the civilian deaths because security forces surrounding the area won't let anyone in.
Meanwhile, fighting broke out Friday between militants and Afghan security forces in Ghazni province, Gov. Sher Alam said. He didn't know the numbers of fighters involved or any casualty numbers.
Militants have stepped up attacks the last several months in Afghanistan's southern and eastern regions near the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military says it has seen an increase in the number of Taliban fighters, particularly in the south.
As many as 339 people have died in violence since May 17, mostly militants, according to Afghan and coalition figures. Because of the difficulty of accessing the scenes of combat, those figures could not be confirmed independently.