KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The U.S. military said Wednesday that it was investigating a report that an American airstrike hit a wedding party in southern Afghanistan, killing dozens of civilians and prompting new pleas from President Hamid Karzai that foreign forces try harder to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants.
"We cannot win the fight against terrorism with airstrikes," Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace in Kabul, speaking hours after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election. "This is my first demand of the new president of the United States -- to put an end to civilian casualties."
The airstrike report came from Kandahar province. The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement today that coalition troops had been battling insurgents around the time of the reported civilian deaths, and that "several" militants were killed.
Separately, American military officials suggested that insurgents had forced civilians to remain in the area while they attacked coalition troops.
Western news agencies quoted residents of the remote village of Wech Bagtu as saying that an airstrike Monday destroyed a residential compound where a wedding was being celebrated, killing about three dozen people, most of them women and children. The bride was said to be one of those injured.
The report could not be immediately confirmed.
Civilian casualties in U.S. operations have become an inflammatory issue in Afghanistan, particularly after a sharp dispute between Western military commanders and Afghan officials over an Aug. 22 airstrike in the western province of Herat.
Afghan authorities, backed by the United Nations, said the strike killed 90 civilians, many of them women and children. U.S. officials initially said about 25 militants and five civilians had been killed. But after reinvestigating the incident, the American military acknowledged that 33 civilians died in the raid.
The initial U.S. denials infuriated many Afghans.
Karzai has made a number of highly emotional public appeals for coalition troops to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties. After the Herat incident, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led force instituted new procedures meant to provide greater protection to civilians.
The U.S. military said the Kandahar reports were being investigated.
"Though facts are unclear at this point, we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan and to avoid circumstances where noncombatant civilians are placed at risk," Cmdr. Jeff Bender, a U.S. spokesman said in a statement.
"If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences to the families and the people of Afghanistan," he said. The military said today that the probe would be carried out jointly with Afghan authorities.
Afghan officials said they were not entirely sure what had happened but that civilian fatalities had occurred.
Karzai, at his news conference, said civilian deaths had become "a matter of tension" between the Afghan government and its Western allies.
More than 1,200 Afghan civilians have been killed this year, according to Afghan officials and human rights groups. Most died in insurgent attacks such as suicide bombings, but accidental strikes by foreign forces caused hundreds of the deaths, Afghan authorities said.