KABUL, Afghanistan - A fierce new dispute erupted yesterday over civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with village elders asserting that as many as 22 noncombatants were killed in an American-led raid and U.S. military officials insisting that all 15 dead, including a woman, were Taliban fighters.
The U.S. military said it would carry out a joint investigation with Afghan authorities beginning today.
Civilian casualties are one of the most serious points of friction between Western forces and the increasingly unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai.
The Afghan leader has repeatedly accused coalition troops of failing to adequately safeguard civilians during combat operations, while commanders accuse the Taliban of deliberately putting innocents in harm's way. Karzai's latest public plea for restraint by Western forces came only hours before President Barack Obama was sworn in Tuesday.
Like many such disputed incidents, this latest one took place in the dead of night in a remote location, and involved the use of air power by American-led troops.
Yesterday's raid took place between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the Mehtar Lam district of Laghman province, about 40 miles northeast of Kabul. American and other coalition troops have focused their efforts lately on securing several provinces adjoining Kabul, after a series of attacks close to the city last year left many Afghans with the sense that insurgents were tightening a noose around the capital.
A statement by the U.S. military said the early-morning strike targeted a Taliban commander "known to traffic foreign fighters and weapons into the region." As coalition troops approached his compound, the statement said, they came under fire from "multiple directions" by militants armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They were running around with weapons, firing at our people," said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. forces.
Village elders provided a much different account to provincial officials, saying there were no Taliban in the area, which they described as a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds. Women and children were among the 22 civilian dead, they said, according to Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council.
Two other officials, including a spokesman for the Laghman governor, later said 11 of the dead had been identified positively as civilians.
Rahmzai said the villagers made a dangerous predawn journey to his office to give their testimony about the fatalities. The report could not be independently verified immediately because of distance and difficult terrain, but Julian, the U.S. military spokesman, said American and Afghan representatives would travel by helicopter to the site today.
The U.S. military statement said searches of village compounds in the firefight's aftermath uncovered weapons caches that included automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, a hand grenade and ammunition. Many rural Afghans keep guns and ammunition in their homes, but Julian said that "RPGs would not be considered a family weapon."
The woman who was killed was advancing on troops with a rocket-propelled grenade, the American military said.
The conflicting accounts of the raid were reminiscent of an August strike in the village of Azizabad in the western province of Herat, which caused an international outcry.
Western military officials acknowledge that their operations sometimes result in accidental deaths and injuries to civilians, but they say Taliban actions put far more noncombatants at risk, in a systematic and deliberate fashion.