KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The U.S. military said Tuesday that it was investigating claims by Afghan officials that as many as 70 civilians were killed in heavy fighting Monday between the Taliban and coalition forces in a remote western district.
Claims and counterclaims about civilian casualties have long been among the most contentious issues between the Afghan government and its Western allies.
The latest reports of civilian deaths and injuries emerged as President Hamid Karzai was preparing to meet today in Washington with President Obama.
Karzai, who is campaigning for reelection in August, has used increasingly sharp language over the last year to demand that U.S. and NATO forces use greater caution when confronting militants in populated areas. Western military officials say the insurgents often deliberately draw coalition firepower onto civilians or exaggerate casualty figures to inflame public anger against coalition troops.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Army Col. Gregory Julian, confirmed that some injured civilians had sought treatment late Monday in the Bala Buluk district in Farah province, a swath of forbidding desert that lies along the Iranian border. Four were treated at hospitals and five received medical care at a U.S. military base, American officials said.
Provincial officials, however, said dozens of people were killed as they sought shelter in a compound in the village of Gerani during coalition airstrikes and that villagers were slowly digging bodies out by hand, with only the most rudimentary of tools at their disposal.
Hangama Saded, a member of the provincial council, said by phone from Farah that about 70 people, including women and children, were thought to have been killed as they huddled together in a large mud-brick residence. She cited accounts from villagers and said evidence would be provided to support their version of events.
"We asked people to take videos and photos of the area and send them to us to have proof in our hands," Saded said. Cultural sensitivities, however, might prevent photographic documentation of female corpses, she said.
In some previous disputes over civilian deaths, the emergence of cellphone videos of the dead has persuaded authorities to reexamine claims that were initially dismissed. In the best-known recent case, villagers -- backed by the Afghan government, human rights groups and the United Nations -- said that as many as 90 people, mainly women and children, were killed last summer in U.S. airstrikes in the village of Azizabad in Herat province.
The U.S. military said at first that nearly all of those killed in Azizabad were insurgents, but acknowledged after a high-level inquiry and a public outcry that 33 of the dead were civilians.
The claims of deaths in Farah province were being aggressively investigated, the U.S. military said, but efforts were hampered by fierce clashes and the village's isolated, inaccessible location.
It is commonplace for such reports to emerge only in sketchy form at first, over a period of days, as survivors make their way to district centers to inform authorities of an incident. By then, in keeping with Muslim tradition, the bodies will have been buried. Local record-keeping of the size of households or extended clans also tends to be scarce or nonexistent.
In Bala Buluk, villagers said fighting between Taliban militants and coalition forces broke out after insurgents moved into the area, took up positions and threatened any residents who cooperated with the Afghan government or Western forces. According to Reuters news agency, the militants publicly executed three men who had formerly worked for the local government -- a not atypical show of force and intimidation when militants try to seize control of an area.
Fighting raged through much of Monday, and the coalition forces eventually called in airstrikes, U.S. officials said. Air power is often the decisive factor in Western forces' ability to hold their own against militants who are much more familiar with the terrain and have ample hiding places.
The provincial police chief, Abdul Ghafar Watandar, said about 25 insurgents were thought to have been killed in the clashes. Gul Ahmad Ayoubi, deputy health chief of Farah, said the injured civilians included women and children.
Civilian casualties are likely to remain a highly sensitive topic in coming months with the arrival of 21,000 additional American troops and the Afghan election campaign. Western military officials say they expect an increased level of violence as coalition forces pursue the insurgents into areas where the Taliban previously operated freely, including much of Farah.
Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.