By Mohammad Reza, AFP
Afghan villagers staged an angry protest Saturday amid claims that 76 civilians were killed in coalition air strikes against Taliban rebels, as the US military launched an investigation.
President Hamid Karzai condemned civilian casualties from Friday's clashes in the western province of Herat but there were conflicting claims about the death toll, with the US-led coalition saying only 30 rebels were killed.
If the toll of 76 is confirmed, it would be one of the highest for civilians in the battle against the extremist Taliban, who were ousted from power in Afghanistan during a US-led invasion in late 2001.
It was difficult to independently verify what happened near the village of Azizabad, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of the city of Herat, as the area is a stronghold of Taliban and other militants, and considered dangerous.
About 250 villagers staged an angry protest on Saturday, hurling stones at Afghan troops, the police chief for western Afghanistan, General Akram Yawar, told AFP.
Shots were fired into the air to disperse the crowd and four people were wounded, he said.
The troops were forced back into their compound, he said by telephone, with the crowd's chants against the government and the international troops heard in the background.
Reporters who later went to the area with a police escort could see around 15 houses reduced to rubble and fresh graves that locals said contained the bodies of the victims.
Demonstrators had torched a police car and checkpost and blocked the main road to Herat for several hours, an AFP correspondent said. They had also overturned a food delivery truck, he said.
The US military, which has been accused of killing scores of other civilians in action against insurgents, including around 50 at a wedding party in July, said it would investigate.
But it insisted only 30 militants were killed in the fighting and air strikes, which followed an ambush on troops going to arrest a "known" Taliban commander.
"We are very confident of the information that we have because we physically went into that compound and identified the people," coalition spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green told AFP Saturday.
On Friday, the Afghan interior ministry said: "Seventy-six people, all civilians and most of them women and children, were martyred."
The dead were "19 women, seven men and the rest children all under 15 years of age," it said.
In a statement, Karzai accused the troops of acting without coordinating with local authorities and "innocently martyring at least 70 people, most of them women and children."
He appointed a delegation headed by religious affairs minister Nehmatullah Shahrani to visit the area, with the protection of security forces, and report back to him within a week.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said it had also sent a team to go to the area to look into "allegations of breach of international humanitarian law and excessive use of force."
It said in a a statement that more than 900 civilians had been killed in insurgent attacks and military operations against rebels in Afghanistan this year.
Karzai has regularly met international troops to urge them to increase efforts to avoid civilian deaths.
These efforts "have not yet brought a fruitful conclusion and our civilians are victims of anti-terrorist operations," his statement said.
UN Special Representative Kai Eide meanwhile warned against "jumping to conclusions" but called for a thorough and quick investigation.
Insurgency-linked unrest has spiralled in Afghanistan, despite the presence of 70,000 international soldiers, with incidents said to be up by 50 percent in parts of the country this year.