Afghan officials and the NATO force on Sunday offered starkly differing accounts of a confrontation between foreign troops and insurgents last week amid the jagged peaks of eastern Afghanistan, with the provincial governor alleging that more than 50 civilians had been killed. The Western military said its findings indicated three dozen armed insurgents had died but promised to continue investigating.
Civilian deaths and injuries are among the most emotionally explosive points of division between the government of President Hamid Karzai and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Even though independent statistics compiled by the United Nations and other groups bear out the fact that most noncombatant deaths occur at the hands of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, many Afghans hold foreign troops directly or indirectly responsible. Incidents such as this one feed that fury.
The disputed deaths took place late last week in Kunar province, a volatile, mountainous region that lies close to the Pakistan border. It has long been a hotbed of violence because of its position as a prime route for insurgents making their way into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal areas.
A small number of U.S. bases — reduced last year after bloody attacks on the most isolated and vulnerable of them — remain in place to try to stem cross-border infiltration. Special operations forces, aided by electronic and human intelligence, closely monitor the area, striking when they see signs of fighters and weapons making their way into Afghanistan.
The governor of Kunar, Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, said district officials, in consultation with tribal elders in the district of Ghaziabad, had determined that of 64 people killed in fighting Friday, only 13 were insurgents. He said the remainder were civilians, including at least 22 women, together with a number of young boys and old men.
The Western military said an assessment team had been dispatched to the area to look into the claims. “We take allegations of civilian casualties very seriously,” U.S. Army Col. Patrick Hynes, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, said in a statement.
Military officials said video shot from weapons systems, together with their own information-gathering, indicated that at least 36 of the dead were armed insurgents. The statement noted that the clash took place “in a very remote valley … over very rugged terrain” in the late-night and early-morning hours.
Meanwhile, Afghan authorities on Sunday put the death toll in an insurgent attack on a bank branch in the eastern city of Jalalabad at 40, more than double the estimate provided Saturday, the day of the assault. About half of those killed were civilians; the remainder were members of the Afghan security forces who had come to collect their pay.
The financial institution in question, troubled Kabul Bank, is alleged to have paid bribes to secure the lucrative contract to pay soldiers, police and government workers at its various branches. The Taliban said members of the security forces — unarmed because their weapons had to be checked at the door — were the target in the attack, which was carried out by a seven-member Taliban team.
Provincial officials initially said all the attackers either detonated their own explosives belts or were shot to death by police. On Sunday, however, the Interior Ministry said there were two survivors, including the mastermind of the attack, who was being interrogated.
Also Sunday, NATO officials said a coalition soldier had died after an improvised explosive device attack in southern Afghanistan.