KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of Afghan civilians were believed killed Monday when coalition forces conducting a reconnaissance mission called in airstrikes that may have hit a wedding party, according to early reports from U.S. and Afghan authorities.
American and Afghan officials dispatched a team of investigators to the scene of the bombing amid sketchy and often conflicting accounts of what prompted the airstrikes, what they targeted and how many casualties they caused.
News of the incident became public late Monday in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and there was no official statement of the number of dead and wounded.
However, an Afghan government official was quoted by local media as saying that 30 to 40 people had been killed and perhaps 60 to 70 wounded. Similar estimates came from local government sources in Oruzgan province. Associated Press identified the village as Kakarak.
Eyewitnesses, reached in the nearest hospital in Kandahar, said the dead and wounded totaled as many as 150.
U.S. officials said they had not determined the number of casualties, but an American military spokesman at Bagram air base north of Kabul offered an apology to villagers who were injured or lost family members in the attack.
"The United States government extends its deepest sympathy to those who may have lost loved ones and those who may have suffered any injuries," said Army Col. Roger King at Bagram.
American forces evacuated four children from the scene of the bombing for medical treatment. Their ages ranged from 8 months to 5 years, said Air Force Lt. Col. Martin Compton, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
The team of investigators will include officials from the U.S. military, the Afghan government and the American Embassy in Kabul.
The attack occurred about 2 a.m. Monday in Oruzgan, a mountainous region in the center of the country where coalition forces are hunting remnants of Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Coalition forces, including U.S. and Afghan soldiers, were conducting a reconnaissance operation near a remote village, Compton said. The forces came under fire and requested air cover, he said.
At least two American planes responded, including an AC-130 gunship that encountered antiaircraft fire within moments of its arrival and a B-52 bomber that was completing an earlier mission in which it had dropped 2,000-pound bombs on suspected Al Qaeda caves and bunkers, Compton said.
The B-52 went on to drop seven bombs on the village, according to another Central Command spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman. It was not clear whether the civilians killed and injured in the strikes were hit by mistake or were gathered at a site considered a legitimate military target. "We don't even know if they were hit by U.S. weapons," Merriman said. "They could have been hit by fire we were taking from antiaircraft" guns.
Victims and local Afghan officials said coalition forces may have mistaken celebratory gunshots from a wedding for hostile fire. Most Afghan men own guns, and firing rounds at the conclusion of almost any festive gathering is local tradition.
But U.S. military officials greeted that explanation with skepticism, saying it's unlikely that small-arms fire would be confused with the antiaircraft rounds reported by the AC-130's pilot.
In a written statement, U.S. Central Command said bombers had "struck several ground targets including antiaircraft artillery sites that were engaging the aircraft."
Further, some military officials said that Al Qaeda has encouraged civilians near the scene of any bombing to insist that they were taking part in a peaceful gathering such as a wedding.
"It's been used before," Compton said.
Still, the incident was the latest in a war in which conservative estimates of civilian casualties already exceeded 1,000. And U.S. warplanes recently killed a number of Canadian soldiers after mistaking rounds from a training exercise for hostile fire.
It is at least the fourth time since last fall that American military operations have led to significant civilian casualties in Oruzgan. In one attack, Hamid Karzai, now Afghanistan's president, was injured, and in another a number of his supporters were killed.
In a statement broadcast on the BBC Dari service, Karzai kept his comments to a minimum, apparently waiting for the official report from the investigatory team. He said that he did not yet know the number of casualties.
The Oruzgan area has long had a double identity. The population, largely from the Pushtun ethnic group, includes many former Taliban as well as supporters of Karzai and the American effort to oust the Taliban. The United States believes that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar might have found refuge there.
The incident could present an uncomfortable early test for Karzai's fledgling government. While Afghans generally are supportive of the American effort to oust the Taliban and hunt down Al Qaeda operatives, there is also a certain unease that the Americans appear to be running their own war with little consultation with the Afghan government.
Karzai, who has relied on the Americans for political, diplomatic and financial support, now finds himself in the difficult position of either defending his foreign friends or criticizing the country that has helped put him in power.
Rubin reported from Kabul and Miller from Washington.