As many as “a dozen or more” Afghan civilians died during a nighttime raid by U.S. troops hunting for Taliban commanders in eastern Afghanistan, military officials acknowledged Thursday.
The episode, which took place Wednesday in Nangarhar province, comes amid escalating tensions between the Western military and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai over civilian casualties.
It also pointed up the growing emphasis by the American military in recent months on pinpoint raids targeting senior insurgent figures. Hundreds of Taliban field commanders have been killed or arrested in such strikes this year, military officials have said.
In Wednesday night’s raid, a fierce firefight broke out after American and Afghan forces swooped down on a compound in Sherzad district, according to local officials and the NATO force. Fifteen to 20 insurgents were killed, including two wanted Taliban commanders, the officials said.
But night raids on residential compounds, even those based on intelligence indicating the presence of Taliban figures, often place civilians in harm’s way. Confusion, darkness and the almost invariable presence of weapons in rural homes add to the danger.
The raiding troops came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles and called in air cover as they withdrew, the military said.
“It appears that between four and a dozen or more civilians were killed” in the confrontation, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said in a statement released about 24 hours after the incident.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the force’s strategic communications director, said NATO forces “deeply regret” the civilian deaths. A joint investigation with Afghan authorities was planned, the military added.
Even before this incident, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force and Karzai were locked in a dispute over more than three dozen civilian deaths reported in an incident last month in the southern province of Helmand.
On Thursday, Karzai’s office said an investigation indicated that 39 civilians, including women and children, had been killed in a rocket strike July 23 during fighting in Helmand’s Sangin district. Last week, the Afghan leader said as many as 52 civilians had died.
The NATO force said earlier that up to eight people, all or most of them insurgents, had been killed in fighting that took place about 10 miles away, but insisted that there was no military activity in the area where the larger number of deaths were reported to have occurred.
This has been one of the most violent summers of the nine-year war, with both soldiers and civilians dying in record numbers.
Fighting is also spreading to parts of the country beyond the traditional insurgent strongholds in the south and east. In the northern province of Kunduz, seven Afghan police officers were killed Thursday when a suicide car bomber struck a convoy of Western troops and Afghan police, the Interior Ministry said. At least 11 people were injured.
Western forces have been ordered to “partner” with Afghan police or soldiers on virtually all missions. But while NATO forces usually travel in mine-resistant armored vehicles, Afghan security forces often ride in open pickup trucks, making them much more vulnerable to attack.
Also Thursday, a Canadian helicopter crash-landed and then burst into flames in the Panjwayi district of the southern province of Kandahar. No one was killed, but eight of the 20 people aboard were hurt, military officials said.
The Taliban claimed to have shot down the craft. A NATO spokesman said the cause of the “hard landing” was being investigated, but that there were no initial indications the helicopter had been downed by hostile fire.