Up to 100 Afghan civilians may have been killed during an air raid by US forces during a joint operation targeting suspected fighters, a provincial governor has said.
If the claims are verified, the deaths in Farah province on the western border would be the largest loss of civilian life in a single incident since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Rohul Amin, the governor of Farah province, said on Wednesday that he feared that 100 civilians had been killed in the Bala Baluk district of the province, about 600km from Kabul, the capital.
Amin said that the Taliban were reportedly using civilian homes to take shelter during the fighting.
Earlier reports had said that 50 civilians had been killed in Monday's raid.
Jessica Barry, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that the organisation sent a team to the region after concerned tribal leaders had contacted them seeking help.
"When [our team] went to the first two villages where these incidents took place they saw dozens of bodies. They saw graves and they saw people being buried," she told Al Jazeera.
Barry said that an ICRC community-based first aid volunteer and his extended family, including his five daughters and three sons, were among the dead
She said that they were killed while sheltering in their home.
The US said on Tuesday that it was conducting a joint inquiry, along with the Afghan government, into the deaths, with investigators from both sides visiting the sites.
Robert Wood, the acting US state department spokesman, said in a statement: "Coalition forces and the Afghan government have received reports of civilian casualties in conjunction with a militant attack on Afghan National Security Forces in Farah Province on May 5.
"A joint investigation will be conducted to determine exactly what happened."
'Dozens of dead'
Colonel Greg Julian, a US military spokesman, acknowledged that a battle had taken place, but could not say if there had been civilian deaths.
"Once we get eyes on the ground we will have a better idea of what may have happened," Julian said.
Monday's attack occurred after Taliban fighters killed three former government officials in a village for co-operating with the state, Amin said.
Amin said that villagers had brought lorry loads of bodies to his office in the provincial capital as proof of their death.
The US government has come under increasing criticism during the past year for civilian deaths during operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
Barry said: "I think that it is important to remember that this is not a one off situation. There has been a rise in casualties over the last year.
"It is absolutely important to remind all sides that civilians must not be harmed."
However, Wood said: "US and international forces take extensive precautions to avoid loss of life among Afghan civilians as well as international and Afghan forces during operations against insurgents and terrorists."
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said on Wednesday that the civilian deaths were unacceptable and that he intends to discuss it with Barack Obama, his US counterpart.
Karzai is in Washington DC for talks with Obama and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president.
The meeting is being held to address the war against the Taliban in both nations.
The Taliban has used Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in the two countries since their five-year rule in Kabul was ended by a US military invasion in 2001.
Washington has heightened its focus on fighting the Taliban since the Obama administration assumed power this year, with an added 21,000 troops being sent to Afghanistan.
There are more than 30,000 US troops in Afghanistan already, alongside a similar number of troops from other foreign nations.
Last year, about 2,000 civilians were killed in fighting against the Taliban, according to the UN.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
'Up to 100 dead' in Afghan raid
The following is from Al Jazeera: