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Afghans protest civilian deaths as U.S. officials raise doubts

Anti-U.S. protests erupted Thursday in a provincial capital near a string of desert villages where scores of Afghan civilians were killed this week during clashes between insurgents and U.S.-led troops.

U.S. military officials, meanwhile, expressed doubts that all the deaths in the Bala Baluk district of western Farah province were the result of airstrikes called in by American special operations forces. Instead, they said, preliminary findings suggested that at least some of the villagers who sought shelter in residential compounds were slain by Taliban fighters wielding grenades.

The estimated toll, as provided by local officials, has been rising daily, but no independent tally by outside observers is available yet.

Provincial council member Abdul Basir Khan, who has been assisting investigators, told the Associated Press that a list of 147 dead had been compiled. If verified, that would represent the largest number of civilians killed in a single incident since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

The civilian deaths, and the increasingly bitter dispute over the circumstances surrounding them, occurred against a backdrop of rising violence in Afghanistan’s south. In Helmand province, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle tried to strike a military convoy as it passed through a market district but killed 12 civilians instead, authorities said.

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Most of the 21,000 additional U.S. troops and trainers arriving in the next few months are expected to be deployed in the south. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is in Afghanistan this week consulting with commanders.

The Afghan public’s support for the Western military presence has been steadily eroded by the civilian deaths at the hands of coalition troops, and the latest incident triggered a nationwide outcry. More than 100 protesters throwing rocks and chanting anti-U.S. slogans gathered outside the governor’s office in the city of Farah, capital of the province. Police fired live ammunition to subdue the crowd, wounding one demonstrator.

Provincial officials, backed up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, say dozens of villagers died during bombardment Monday night after hours of fighting between insurgents and Afghan troops reinforced by U.S. Marines. Some officials have said that survivors’ accounts of airstrikes at nightfall, after a day of battles, were consistent with one another on that point.

But U.S. military officials said it had not been proven that the airstrikes caused the deaths. Army Col. Gregory Julian, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday that investigators had found evidence to support the theory that Taliban insurgents threw grenades into compounds sheltering villagers.

“We are trying to confirm that close air support didn’t result in these civilian casualties,” Julian said. “The signature for aerial bombardment would be different than that from a roomful of grenades.”

A joint investigation by U.S. military and Afghan authorities is underway, he said.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.


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