By JASON STRAZIUSO and RAHIM FAIEZ, Associated Press Writers
Scores of Afghan civilians who had gathered in a small village for the memorial ceremony of a militia commander were killed when U.S. and Afghan soldiers launched an attack in the middle of the night, officials and villagers said Saturday.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the early Friday operation in western Afghanistan and said most of the dead were civilians. The U.S. coalition, however, said it believed only five civilians were among those killed and said that it would investigate the Afghan claims.
An Afghan human rights group that visited the site of the operation said Saturday that at least 78 people were killed. The Ministry of Interior has said 76 civilians died, including 50 children under the age of 15, though the Ministry of Defense said 25 militants and five civilians were killed.
Meanwhile, a school principal and police official said Afghan soldiers tried to hand out food and clothes Saturday in Azizabad — the village in Herat province where the operation took place. But villagers started throwing stones at the soldiers, who then fired on the villagers and wounded up to eight people.
An Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission researcher visited Azizabad in Herat province and found that 15 houses had been destroyed and others were damaged, said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the group's commissioner.
Nadery said the information was preliminary and the group would publish a final report. He did not provide a breakdown of how many were civilians or militants, and said 20 women were among the dead and that children also were killed.
Nadery confirmed reports from villagers that a memorial ceremony was being held for a deputy militia commander allied with the Afghan police named Timor Shah, who had died in a personal dispute several months ago. Because of the memorial, relatives and friends from outside Azizabad were staying overnight in village homes, he said.
An AP photographer who visited Azizabad on Saturday said he saw at least 20 graves, including some graves with multiple bodies in them. He said he saw around 20 houses that had been destroyed.
Originally the U.S. coalition said the battle killed 30 militants, including a wanted Taliban commander, but U.S. coalition spokeswoman Rumi Nielson-Green said Saturday that five civilians — two women and three children connected to the militants — were among the dead.
The U.S. said it would investigate.
"Obviously there's allegations and a disconnect here. The sooner we can get that cleared up and get it official, the better off we'll all be," said U.S. coalition spokesman 1st Lt. Nathan Perry. "We had people on the ground."
The competing claims by the U.S. coalition and the two Afghan ministries were impossible to verify because of the remote and dangerous location of the battle site.
Complicating the matter, Afghan officials are known to exaggerate civilian death claims for political payback, to qualify for more compensation money from the U.S. or because of pressure from the Taliban.
Still, the U.S. has killed dozens of civilians in past strikes even though it first denied any civilians had been hit.
In early July, U.S. bombs killed 47 civilians walking to a wedding party in Nuristan province, according to the findings of a government commission.
The U.S. military originally said it believed only combatants had been killed, and suggested that reports of civilians deaths were based on propaganda from militants. The U.S. later acknowledged that there may have been civilian casualties but never gave a specific number.
Civilian deaths creates massive amounts of pressure on Karzai, and on Saturday the president said his government would soon announce "necessary measures" to prevent civilian casualties, but provided no details.
Ghulam Azrat, 50, the director of the middle school in Azizabad, said he collected 60 bodies Friday morning after the bombing.
"We put the bodies in the main mosque," he told The Associated Press by phone, sometimes pausing to collect himself in between tears. "Most of these dead bodies were children and women. It took all morning to collect them."
Azrat said villagers on Saturday threw stones at Afghan soldiers who tried to give food and clothes to them. He said the soldiers fired into the crowd and wounded eight people, including one child critically wounded.
"The people were very angry," he said. "They told the soldiers, 'We don't need your food, we don't need your clothes. We want our children. We want our relatives. Can you give it to us? You cannot, so go away.'"
A spokesman for Afghan police in western Afghanistan, Rauf Ahmadi, confirmed that the demonstration took place against the soldiers, who he said fired into the air. Ahmadi said two Afghans were wounded by the gunfire.
The early Friday operation was led by Afghan National Army commandos, with support from the coalition, Nielson-Green said.
It was launched after an intelligence report that a Taliban commander, Mullah Siddiq, was inside the compound presiding over a meeting of militants, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. Siddiq was one of those killed during the raid, Azimi said.
More than 3,500 people — mostly militants — have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to figures from Western and Afghan officials.
On Saturday, a roadside bomb killed 10 civilians as they rode in a small bus in southern Kandahar province, according to an Afghan police chief, Matiullah Khan. Roadside bombs are typically aimed at Afghan and NATO troops but often are triggered early and kill civilians.
On Sunday, U.S.-led coalition troops clashed with a group of Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan, killing six militants, said Rahimullah safi, an Afghan provincial official.
The troops were attacked by militants while on patrol in the volatile Tagab valley of the northern Kapisa province before returning fire, said 1st Lt. Nathan Perry, a coalition spokesman. Perry said "multiple militants" were killed.
Tagab is close to where militants killed 10 French troops on Tuesday in the deadliest ground attack on foreign troops since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.