KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — President Hamid Karzai on Saturday denounced an airstrike by U.S.-led forces that his government said killed 76 Afghan civilians.
Civilian casualties are an extremely sensitive subject in Afghanistan, where the government has repeatedly pleaded with Western troops to exercise greater care to avoid injuring and killing noncombatants. Karzai broke down in tears during one such appeal.
The U.S. military initially put the number of dead at 30, describing all of those killed Friday in a remote part of Herat province, on Afghanistan's western border, as Taliban militants. On Saturday, U.S. spokesmen said that five of the dead were believed to be women or children, and that allegations of a much higher and predominantly civilian death toll would be investigated.
Accounts of the fighting 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 had happened.
The U.S. military said it staged an airstrike early Friday in the area, targeting a senior Taliban commander. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said the 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 Saturday put the total number of dead at 78, after an initial tally of 88.
The Afghan 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 came to distribute aid, 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."
Times special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer King from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.