KABUL, Afghanistan – Tribal elders in a remote part of northeastern Afghanistan claimed Sunday that NATO forces killed 64 civilians in air and ground strikes over the past four days. The international coalition denied the claim, saying video showed troops targeting and killing dozens of insurgents.
Coalition and Afghan officials plan to go to the Ghazi Abad district of Kunbar province, a hotbed of the insurgency, on Monday to investigate. Civilian casualties have been a constant source of friction between coalition troops and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Tribal elders told the provincial governor that air strikes hit a village in the area and that "women and children had been killed inside their houses," said Nawrdin Safi, a member of the Kunar provincial council.
Kunar province police chief Gen. Khalilullah Ziayi said local residents claimed 15 men, 20 women and 29 children or young adults were killed during operations in the area, about 190 kilometers (117 miles) east of Kabul.
NATO said video of the operations show troops targeting and killing between 35 and 40 armed insurgents along steep, rugged cliffs.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communications for the coalition, said he watched video of a five-hour battle — recorded by cameras mounted on helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles — and saw no evidence of civilian casualties or strikes against any structures.
He said helicopters flew to the area on the evening of Feb. 17 after the coalition received intelligence that insurgents had planned a gathering there to plan an attack against coalition and Afghan forces further down the valley. Once the insurgents saw the helicopters, they dispersed down the hillside and were targeted and killed, Smith said.
During the operation, Smith said the coalition picked up conversations between insurgents, including one man saying "Call government officials and tell them that civilians are being killed so the coalition will stop shooting us." Smith said others were heard saying "We've lost 50 of our men so far" and "We need help with our wounded. We have to bury our dead."
NATO said it supports Karzai's call for an investigation, which will examine all four days of operations in the area.
Karzai condemned the incident and said more measures should be taken to safeguard civilians who are increasingly caught in the crossfire of ramped up fighting.
The president has repeatedly called on NATO to do more to protect civilians during stepped-up military operations.
In response, NATO placed severe restrictions on the circumstances in which troops could call in an airstrike or fire into buildings where civilians might be located. When Gen. David Petraeus took over the command last July, he reiterated the tactical directive, but emphasized that field officers should not add restrictions to his rules.
Also Sunday, the Afghan government said that an attack a day earlier in which five suicide bombers stormed a bank in eastern Afghanistan and killed 38 people indicated insurgents are going after a new type of targets.
The bombers, dressed in security force uniforms, attacked a Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, just as Afghan security force members were collecting their pay.
"Unfortunately, we see that there's a change of tactic in the terrorist attacks and they are targeting soft targets" — places that are not heavily barricaded and fortified like government buildings or military compounds, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary told reporters in Kabul.
He cited two other recent targets, including a suicide bombing at an upscale supermarket in January and an attack a Western-style shopping mall in February.
A NATO intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss insurgent tactics, said the Taliban's strategy was to sacrifice public support for short-term gains with attacks that grab headlines. The insurgents have staged these recent attacks in populated areas where they have less influence so as not to lose their core support in rural areas where their strongest backers reside, he said.
In southern Afghanistan, a coalition service member was killed Sunday following a roadside bombing, bringing to 55 the number of coalition service members who have died so far this year.
In western Afghanistan, a bomb killed a policeman and two civilians Sunday in Shindand district of Herat province, said district chief Lal Mohammad Omerzai.