KABUL, Afghanistan - A NATO airstrike yesterday on a village near the embattled provincial capital of Lashkar Gah killed 25 to 30 civilians, Afghan officials in the area said.
While NATO confirmed that an airstrike had taken place in the area, where Taliban fighters have been battling NATO forces, it said the reports were being investigated and the command was "unable to confirm any civilian casualties."
Reliable information on the airstrike - whether it caused the deaths, as local officials and residents reported, and whether the number of civilian deaths was accurate - was elusive.
But any substantial civilian death toll would further inflame an Afghan government and public already uneasy over a recent rise in civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes.
U.S. commanders have acknowledged the war has been going badly in recent months as the Taliban and al-Qaida have stepped up their campaign of bombings and assassinations.
Residents claiming to have witnessed the airstrike said at least 18 bodies, all women and children - including one only 6 months old - were pulled from the rubble and taken to the provincial governor's compound in protest.
At nightfall in Kabul, the Afghan capital, the NATO command issued a statement confirming only that an airstrike had taken place in the Nadali District, northwest of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the southwest. The command said it expected to give more details today.
The NATO command's concern about airstrikes was heightened after Aug. 22, when an American AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected Taliban compound in the village of Azizabad in the western province of Herat, prompting claims by villagers that more than 90 civilians were killed.
The U.S. military under Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, initially insisted that only five to seven civilians were killed but then ordered another investigation after new evidence emerged from the United Nations and reporters who visited the scene. A subsequent report by a Pentagon-based general, released last week, concluded that more than 30 civilians died.
The Azizabad strike shook the already strained relationship between the Bush administration and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. U.S. officials have criticized Karzai's government for what they say is incompetence and corruption, and Karzai has struck back with demands that U.S. commanders rein in their airstrikes, saying that civilian casualties have undermined popular support for the war effort. After the Azizabad strike, Bush called Karzai to express his regrets.
Less than two weeks later, McKiernan issued a so-called tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties.
Local officials and residents of Nadali said yesterday that a bomb had hit three houses in a village in the Loy Bagh District that were sheltering seven families who fled fighting elsewhere in the district over the past week. Mahboob Khan, the district chief, said by telephone that 18 bodies had been recovered and as many as 12 other bodies remained buried in the rubble. Khan said the bombing had caused widespread anger among the villagers.
"They're busy burying their family members now," he said. "But tomorrow, they will demand to know why their houses were targeted."
Khan's account, and similar ones given by other local officials, could not be verified because reporters were unable to reach the site of the strike. Khan's compound in Nadali is said to be the only place in the district that is under the control of the government. The Taliban are said to have virtually free run of the area, a situation that if true would mean that Taliban commanders would be in a position to exploit the strike by offering their own version of what occurred.