Kabul, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai today denounced an airstrike by U.S.-led forces that his office said killed at least 70 civilians.
Civilian deaths and injuries are an extremely sensitive subject in Afghanistan, where the government has repeatedly pleaded with Western troops to exercise greater care to avoid hurting and killing noncombatants. Karzai broke down in tears during one such appeal.
Afghans still generally support the presence of foreign troops who are fighting Taliban insurgents, but accidental civilian deaths inflame public fury against the Western coalition and the Karzai government.
The American military initially put the number of dead in a remote part of Herat province, on Afghanistan's western border, at 30, describing all of those killed as Taliban militants. Today, U.S. spokesmen said five of the dead were believed to have been women or children, and that allegations of a much higher and predominantly civilian death toll would be investigated.
Accounts of the fighting in the Shindand district provided by Afghan authorities, human rights groups and the U.S. military have varied widely, and the remoteness of the area made it difficult to determine exactly what happened.
The U.S. military said it staged an airstrike early Friday in the area, targeting a senior Taliban commander, and that all of those killed were thought to be Taliban fighters.
But Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said aerial bombardment, which it described as occurring later in the day, killed 76 civilians, including scores of women and children. An Afghan human rights group today put the total number of dead at 78, after initially compiling a tally of 88.
Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said the Taliban commander targeted in the raid, Mullah Siddiq, was among those killed in the airstrike.
Local authorities reported that angry villagers threw stones at Afghan soldiers who arrived to distribute aid including food and clothing, and that soldiers eventually fired into the air to disperse the protesters. There were conflicting reports as to whether anyone was hurt in the altercation.
The United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, called for the varying accounts of the incident to be investigated "thoroughly and quickly."
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer King from Dubai.