KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO is looking into reports that dozens of civilians died in clashes and airstrikes in western Afghanistan, its top commander in the country said in a Friday statement, but insisted that only militants were targeted.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan has said international and Afghan troops killed 136 suspected Taliban fighters in the Zerkoh Valley of Herat province last week, in some of the deadliest fighting so far this year.
However, an investigation by Afghan officials has found that 51 civilians died, prompting President Hamid Karzai to warn that Afghans can no longer accept such losses.
Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said that he was personally examining detailed battlefield reports.
“This much I can tell you about it: Only firing insurgents were targeted,” McNeill told a group of journalists in Brussels via teleconference on Thursday, according to an official transcript of his comments.”If there have been civilian casualties that’s regrettable.”
He said, however, that nothing has been proven.
“But there is a lot of allegations and not a whole lot of substantiations. We are going into this and are looking at this thoroughly, and we will take whatever necessary actions there are” to avoid harming civilians, he said.
Civilian deaths have deepened Afghans’ distrust of international forces and of the U.S.-backed government as they try to combat a resurgent Taliban _ itself accused by human rights groups of indiscriminate attacks that often kill noncombatants.
According to an Associated Press tally, based on reports from Afghan and Western officials, 151 civilians have been killed by violence in the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on NATO and the U.S.-led coalition.
The figures do not include the alleged civilian fatalities in Herat, which earlier this week sparked angry anti-U.S. protests by residents.
Afghan officials who visited the area concluded that 51 civilians had died, including women and children.
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, said Friday that a separate investigation by its officials found that up to 49 civilians were killed and over 900 families displaced because of the clash.
The Afghan and U.N. officials did not provide details of how they reached their conclusions.
Giving details of the battle, McNeill said scores of insurgents had twice ambushed smaller units of U.S.-led troops trying to reach the site of a weapons cache revealed by two alleged bombmakers captured days before.
One U.S. soldier was killed.
The second battle, which the coalition has said took place last weekend, lasted 14 hours.
NATO forces came to the aid of the coalition in an “extreme situation,” McNeill said, without elaborating on the alliance’s role.
The last large-scale civilian deaths were in October, when between 30 and 80 civilians were reported killed during NATO airstrikes in Panjwayi, a volatile district in southern Afghanistan. NATO said a preliminary inquiry found 12 civilian had died.
A recent Human Rights Watch report said NATO and U.S. military operations killed at least 230 civilians in 2006 and that most of the year’s 900 civilian combat fatalities were from insurgent attacks.