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Group disputes death toll in U.S. Afghan strike

/ Source: The Associated Press

Fresh clashes killed 11 people Friday in Afghanistan and a human rights group estimated that 34 civilians died earlier this week in a U.S. airstrike on a southern village — double the official toll.

Extending more than a week of stepped-up violence, Taliban rebels ambushed a police patrol in central Ghazni province. The ensuing battle left 10 militants and a policeman dead, local police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said.

Meanwhile, Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the director of the Kandahar office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Afghans who had fled their small village of Azizi told him that about 25 family members died in one mud-brick home and that nine other civilians perished in the village’s religious school during a strike this week by U.S. warplanes.

Much higher toll
Villagers reported burying about 35 “unknown people” — meaning militants from outside their area, he said.

About 11 civilians were wounded, he said.

The estimate of 34 civilian deaths more than doubled the number given by the governor of Kandahar and President Hamid Karzai, who said that 16 people had died. The U.S.-led coalition has said their estimate was in line with the governor’s.

Sgt. Chris Miller, a coalition spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of a new estimate and the coalition figure had not changed.

Another 13 insurgents and two police officers died Wednesday in a battle in southern Helmand province’s Sangin district, said local administrator Ghulam Muhiddin. It took two days for news of the battle to emerge due to the remoteness of the battle site.

Upsurge of violence
As many as 365 people, mostly militants, have died in an upsurge of violence since May 17, according to Afghan and coalition figures. Because of the difficulty of accessing the scenes of combat, those figures could not be confirmed independently.

Haji Ikhlaf, a resident of Azizi who was wounded in the attack, told The Associated Press earlier this week that villagers had buried 26 civilians.

The coalition has said that up to 80 militants were killed, although 60 of those deaths were unconfirmed. It appeared to be one of the deadliest airstrikes since U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.

Karzai has called for an investigation into the airstrike and urged the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to make “every effort” to ensure civilians’ safety.

Taliban fighters on the rise
The U.S. military has said it takes “extraordinary measures” to protect Afghan civilians, but that Taliban militants were firing on coalition forces from inside the villagers’ homes, and that troops had the right to return fire in defense.

Noorzai said he hasn’t been able to visit Azizi to take a survey of the civilian deaths because security forces have cordoned off the area.

Militants have increased their attacks in the last several months across Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions near the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military says it has seen an increase in the number of Taliban fighters, particularly in the south.