With public anger running high over civilian deaths in airstrikes by Western troops, Afghan authorities said Friday that at least 17 civilians had been killed in fighting in southern Afghanistan.
The NATO-led force said in a statement that it was investigating the reports but that there was no evidence so far that any noncombatants had been killed in clashes during the previous two days in Helmand province. Western military officials confirmed, however, that an airstrike had been carried out in the area.
Details on the reported deaths were emerging slowly -- a common occurrence in remote areas with poor communications, where many of the daily confrontations between insurgents and Western forces take place.
Fighting has also been heavy in eastern Afghanistan, where most of the American troops in the country serve. Regional officials in Kunar province said Friday that 18 insurgents were killed in fighting in the previous 24 hours.
In Helmand province, local officials said the civilian deaths occurred in an airstrike Thursday in the Nad Ali district, which was briefly overrun last week by Taliban fighters, then retaken by Western forces.
Helmand is a key battleground in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s fight against the insurgents. It produces the majority of the world’s opium and is the base for a major concentration of Taliban fighters. About 8,000 British troops are stationed in the province, but Helmand’s size forces them to deploy thinly in some areas.
Civilian deaths have contributed to the growing unpopularity of President Hamid Karzai’s government, even though the Afghan leader has pleaded publicly with Western troops to take greater care to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants.
The circumstances surrounding the latest reported civilian deaths were murky. Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor’s office, said the bodies of 17 civilians, including women and children, were recovered from the rubble of a walled compound.
However, Ahmadi said that it had not been determined whether a Western airstrike or “insurgent action” had destroyed the compound.
On Friday, villagers from Nad Ali made the arduous six-mile trek to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, bringing more than a dozen bodies to the governor’s home in protest.
Lashkar Gah, a city of about 85,000, has been extremely tense over the last week since insurgents massed on its outskirts and made two attempts to overrun it. Both efforts were repulsed by NATO and Afghan forces.
Although NATO officials say the insurgents do not have the strength to take and hold such a large city, many residents are terrified.
Civilian casualties have been an issue in the seven years since a U.S.-led force invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement. But anger flared over the summer when Afghan authorities and human rights groups, backed by the United Nations, claimed that nearly 90 people died in a U.S. airstrike in Herat province.
American officials have since acknowledged that more than 30 civilians were killed in the Aug. 22 strike in Herat’s Shindand district but have not accepted the higher estimate put forth by Afghan authorities.
U.S. authorities initially said five civilians were killed in the attack, but they reopened their investigation after cellphone video of the apparent aftermath surfaced. The U.S. military said forces involved in the Herat strike were operating in line with rules of engagement.