KABUL, Afghanistan -- In what has become a dolefully familiar event, local Afghan officials reported yesterday that at least 30 civilians, and perhaps a great many more, were killed during U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, this time in the Gereshk district of the southern province of Helmand, where dozens of civilians died under similar circumstances the previous week.
Contacted by telephone, the mayor of Gereshk, Dor Ali Shah, and tribal elders said that the allied bombardment began late Friday and extended into yesterday, coming soon after insurgents had attacked coalition ground forces.
"Five houses were bombed," the mayor said, who proceeded to name some of the victims: Hajji Noor Muhammad, Amanullah, Abdul Wajeed and Hajji Muhammad Qasam.
"These were all civilians, and the dead include women and children. There were also militants killed. We are sending a delegation to the village to investigate," he said.
Some early reports painted an even grislier picture, putting the civilian toll at more than 100.
"People tried to escape from the area with their cars, trucks and tractors, and the coalition airplanes bombed them because they thought they were the enemy fleeing," said Hajji Zahir, a tribal elder who said he had been in touch with residents of the affected villages. "They told me that they had buried 170 bodies so far."
Hajji Assadullah, another elder, said that 35 villagers, fleeing in a tractor-trailer, were hit by an airstrike. "There were only two survivors, an old man and his son, and the son was seriously injured, and I saw them with my own eyes," he said.
Dr. Ainaytullah Ghafari, the head of Gereshk Hospital, said he had treated three children from the same family. "They had lost seven relatives," Ghafari said. "The bombs hit houses, and people ran. ... Most of the victims were women and children. About 60 to 65 civilians have been killed in Kakaran village."
The coalition's account, while not denying civilian deaths, was markedly different. According to Maj. Chris Belcher, allied forces, which included Afghans, came under heavy fire from small arms, mortars and grenades near the village of Haderabad. The allies returned fire and called in air support, aimed at "clearly identified firing positions," he said in a prepared statement.
"Remains of some people who apparently were civilians were found among insurgent fighters who were killed in firing positions in a trench line," the major's account read. "We are deeply saddened by any loss of innocent lives. Insurgents are continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat."
There are more than 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, most of them American. Fierce combat goes on almost every day in five of Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban have proved to be a stubborn fighting force. The U.S.-led coalition and NATO commonly use airstrikes against retreating insurgents.
In recent months, the rising number of civilian deaths has provoked severe criticism. The Taliban come under censure, but the allies are accused of being cavalier about civilian casualties.
On June 19, Acbar, a coalition of Afghan and international relief agencies such as CARE, Save the Children and Mercy Corps, said that the civilian toll had reached at least 230 this year, with "excessive use of force" sapping the "initial goodwill toward the international military presence."
On June 23, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, accused the U.S. military and its NATO allies of carrying out "careless operations." He said, "Afghan life is not cheap and should not be treated as such."