Taliban violence escalates each spring in Afghanistan with snow melting on mountain passes.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- U.S. warplanes hunting Taliban fighters bombed a religious school and mud-brick homes in southern Afghanistan on Monday, killing dozens of suspected militants and 17 civilians in one of the deadliest strikes since the American-led invasion in 2001.
Pickup trucks ferried wounded villagers to a hospital in nearby Kandahar city. One woman, cradling her injured baby, recounted seeing "dead people everywhere" after the nighttime attack.
Taliban violence escalates each spring in Afghanistan with snow melting on mountain passes. But the scale of the assaults -- and of U.S.-led coalition response -- has been greater this year, as thousands of NATO forces prepare to deploy in the volatile south, the heartland of the ousted Islamic regime.
According to coalition and Afghan figures, the airstrikes brought the death toll of militants, Afghan forces, coalition soldiers and civilians to as many as 286 since Wednesday, when the recent storm of violence erupted in the south.
A coalition statement said it confirmed 20 Taliban killed in the attack on the village of Azizi in Kandahar province late Sunday and early Monday, while there were "an unconfirmed 60 additional Taliban casualties." One Afghan villager put the count of Taliban dead at 35-40.
U.S. commander Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry said the military was "looking into" whether civilians also were killed. Afghan officials said 17 civilians died.
Eikenberry also said there are more Taliban militants and drug traffickers in Afghanistan's southern provinces this spring than a year ago. Other military leaders have said the militants' increasing attacks are likely an attempt to show NATO forcesthat the Taliban is a powerful presence.
Eikenberry said the coalition was aggressively pursuing the Taliban.
"The Taliban has suffered extraordinary losses in the last three or four weeks -- several hundred Taliban killed in the field," he said. "We're the ones that are moving. They're the ones who are trying to hold."
The coalition said it was the third clash in Azizi in a week. Up to 27 militants were killed in a ground battle and airstrike there Thursday.
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said the airstrike killed 16 civilians and wounded 16. "These sort of accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban are hiding in homes," he said. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban."
Aircraft "bombed the madrassa, and some of the Taliban ran from there and into people's homes. Then, those homes were bombed," said Haji Ikhlaf, 40. "I saw 35 to 40 dead Taliban and around 50 dead or wounded civilians."
Zurmina Bibi said about 10 people were killed in her home, including three or four children. "There were dead people everywhere," she said, crying as she held her wounded 8-month-old.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins said, "It's common that the enemy fights in close to civilians as a means to protect its own forces.
"We targeted a Taliban compound and we're certain we hit the right target," he told the AP.
Reporters could not reach Azizi because police and foreign troops had blocked off the area, about 30 miles southwest of Kandahar. But the village, also known as Hajiyan, has about 30-35 large compounds, each housing an extended family with up to 50 members. The village has a mosque and one madrassa, where boys study. It has no electricity or running water.
President Hamid Karzai last month urged U.S.-led coalition forces to show restraint when attacking militants in residential areas after 13 civilians and police died in two possible "friendly fire" incidents.
The worst such incident came in July 2002, when Afghan officials said 48 civilians were killed and 117 wounded in an airstrike, many of them at a wedding party in Uruzgan province.
The Taliban resurgence, including suicide attacks and roadside bombings, has halted postwar reconstruction work in many areas because of security concerns and raised fears for the country's future. It also has frayed relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a former supporter of the Taliban regime but now a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said Taliban leaders are in Pakistan and that "the movement and the communication during these terrorist attacks" comes from the Pakistan side of the border.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said her country shouldn't be blamed. "The Afghan government's failure to deal with the situation cannot be placed at Pakistan's door," she said Monday.
In other violence, Mohammed Ali Jalali, the former governor of eastern Paktika province, was found dead after being kidnapped Sunday, police chief Abdul Rehman Surjung said. Jalali was a tribal elder and Karzai supporter.
Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso contributed to this report from Kabul.