By ALLAUDDIN KHAN
The Associated Press
LAY KUNDI, Afghanistan -- Dozens of civilians were killed in a NATO military strike against suspected Taliban militants, Afghan officials said Thursday. Villagers fled the southern region by car and donkey, and hundreds attended a funeral for some 20 people buried in a mass grave.
The civilian deaths -- estimated by Afghan officials at between 30 and 85, including many women and children -- are among the highest in any foreign military action here since the fall of the Taliban and could turn residents against the counterinsurgency campaign.
NATO said a preliminary review found that 12 civilians were killed in the clashes Tuesday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, the Taliban's former southern stronghold. But the alliance could not say if they had died because of Taliban or NATO action.
Maj. Luke Knittig, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said up to 70 militants may have been killed in three clashes. The fighting took place in or around the villages of Lay Kundi and Mirwisa Mina.
Knittig said Taliban fighters attacked NATO forces, and that return artillery fire and airstrikes were aimed at militants.
Bismallah Afghanmal, a provincial council member, said fighters fled into civilian homes, which were then attacked by NATO forces.
"With insurgents who regard the population as a form of human shield for themselves it obviously makes life very difficult for us, but it does not stop us from making every effort to ensure that we minimize any problems," said Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman.
But villagers and local government officials denounced NATO and blamed the government for a lack of security.
"The people are not forgetting the deaths of their children after a simple 'sorry,"' Afghanmal said.
Despite Afghanmal's remarks that the fighters had run into civilian homes, villagers insisted there were no Taliban in their midst.
"Everyone is very angry at the government and the coalition. There was no Taliban," Abdul Aye, who lives in Mirwisa Mina, said through tears at the mass funeral in Kandahar city. He said 22 members of his family were killed. "These tragedies just keep continuing."
Death tolls in remote military action in Afghanistan are difficult to pin down, and estimates often vary widely. Also in question is who can be considered a civilian and who is a fighter.
It is possible that the villagers were referring to hard-core Taliban fighters who have crossed the border from Pakistan. Afghan and NATO officials say only a small percentage of militant fighters subscribe to the Taliban's ultraconservative ideology, and many of the militants are believed to fight only for a paycheck or because they have been threatened.
Asked how NATO determines when and whom to attack, Laity told the British Broadcasting Corp. that "we're not going to attack people who aren't carrying weapons." But he said the alliance would use its firepower "if we're actually under attack" or perhaps "if people are moving in a threatening manner."
But, he added, "I know there's a lot of times when we're pretty sure, but because we believe there's civilians around, we don't attack."
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly condemned civilian deaths caused by Western forces. Only a week ago, he urged NATO to use "maximum caution" in its military operations to avoid civilian casualties after nine villagers were killed during another NATO operation in Kandahar province.
The worst previous reported incident of civilian deaths from foreign military action in Afghanistan came in July 2002, when a U.S. airstrike in Uruzgan province killed 48 civilians, many of them at a wedding party. A U.S. investigative report later confirmed 34 dead.
Tuesday's violence in Panjwayi took place a month after NATO launched a major offensive in the district. The alliance says more than 500 militants were killed in the earlier operation, which the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Richards, has called a "significant success."
Richards last month said reconstruction and development efforts -- seen as critical for winning over Afghans after the military action -- would soon begin in the region.
But since then, heavy fighting has broken out.
On Thursday, villagers in Lay Kundi, 20 miles southwest of Kandahar city, loaded their cars with household goods and fled the area. One family with no car loaded three donkeys and walked. Left behind were sheep and other farm animals killed in the bombings.
"Fourteen members of my family were killed," said Fazel Mohammed, 52, a villager in Lay Kundi, where several mud homes were destroyed.
In Kandahar, hundreds of mourners attended a funeral for 22 victims buried overnight in a mass grave in Mirwisa Mina about 10 miles to the west, said lawmaker Habibullah Khan.
"There were no militants. Innocent people have been killed," said Taj Mohammad, a villager at the funeral who said 10 of his relatives had been killed.
The Interior Ministry spokesman, Zemeri Bashary, said 60 people were killed, more than half of them militants. Afghanmal, the provincial council member, put the death toll at 80 to 85 civilians.
Karzai said he formed a committee to investigate. But he did not say how many civilians he thought had been killed, nor did he condemn any of the deaths. The Afghan Defense Ministry is also heading an investigation, NATO said.
State television said Karzai spoke with one of the victims by phone and offered his condolences.
The president's announcement of a government probe -- customary after such an incident -- was unlikely to reassure Afghans.
"An investigation has no meaning," Afghanmal said. "These kinds of things have happened several times, and they only say 'Sorry.' How can you compensate people who have lost their sons and daughters?"