Image: girl in hospital
Fradioon Pooya  /  AP
Haji Barkat Ullah speaks with daughter Frishta, 7, who was wounded in coalition airstrike Monday night in Bala Baluk district of Farah province. The girl is recovering in a hospital in Herat, Afghanistan.
updated 5/9/2009 2:44:50 PM ET 2009-05-09T18:44:50

A joint U.S.-Afghan investigation confirmed that an unspecified number of civilians died in a southern Afghan battle, but the initial findings released Saturday appeared to blame Taliban militants who used locals as “human shields.”

Heavy fighting took place in two villages in Farah province over several hours Monday and Tuesday, a joint statement said. It said U.S. forces responded to a call for help from Afghan forces, and that militants attacked the troops from several locations around the villages.

It said troops called for airstrikes on the militant positions.

“The investigation suggests that villagers had taken refuge in a number of houses in each village. Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked ANSF (Afghan security forces) and Coalition forces,” a statement from the U.S. coalition said.

Neither the U.S. nor Afghan forces took responsibility for killing civilians in Saturday’s statement, but appeared to lay the blame on militants.

“The joint investigation team strongly condemns the brutality of the Taliban extremists deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and using them as human shields,” the statement said.

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah’s provincial council, said Friday that he collected the names of 147 people killed in fighting in two villages in Farah’s Bala Baluck district. Other Afghan officials have said dozens of civilians died in the battle, but a U.S. spokeswoman had called such reports “extremely over-exaggerated.”

The U.S.-Afghan team of investigators visited the villages this week and saw two mass graves and one burial site with seven individual graves, the joint U.S.-Afghan statement said.

“The joint investigation team confirms that a number of civilians were killed in the course of the fighting but is unable to determine with certainty which of those casualties were Taliban fighters and which were noncombatants because those killed are all buried,” the statement said.

Civilian casualties have long been a source of tension between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pleaded with American officials to cut down on the number of civilians killed in its military operations.

On Friday, Karzai said “we cannot justify in any manner, for whatever number of Taliban, for whatever number of significantly important terrorists, the accidental or otherwise loss of civilians.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Karzai criticizes U.S. airstrikes


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