Afghan President Hamid Karzai said a deadly raid on a village by American and Afghan commandos has put new strain on relations with the United States and promised Thursday to punish those responsible.
Afghan officials, backed by a United Nations mission, say that more than 90 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed during the Aug. 22 raid in Azizabad in western Heta's Shindand district. U.S. officials contend that up to 35 militants, including a Taliban commander, and no more than seven civilians died.
"I have been working day and night in the past five years to prevent such incidents, but I haven't been successful in my efforts," Karzai told the villagers assembled inside a mosque in Shindand.
"If I had succeeded, the people of Azizabad wouldn't be bathed in blood," said Karzai, who later flew over the bombed village.
Vows of justice
Karzai promised village elders and grieving relatives of the victims that those responsible for the raid would face justice and be punished. He already has fired two Afghan officers involved in the raid.
His comments came a day after he spoke to President Bush about the raid and how to prevent civilian casualties.
"President Bush told President Karzai that he grieves anytime innocents die," White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Thursday.
The U.S. has long said that Taliban militants pressure Afghan villagers to falsely claim civilian casualties, damaging the reputations of the U.S., NATO and the Western-backed Afghan government.
Villagers in Azizabad said that false information about the presence of the Taliban in the area had been fed to the coalition forces before the raid.
"There were no Taliban in the area, I don't even have a weapon at home," said Sayed Ahmad, who lost his wife and two children in the attack.
In small villages where civilians are reported killed in combat, the Afghan government and international militaries pay about $2,000 for each person killed, giving villagers incentive to file false claims. U.S. officials acknowledge that payments have been made for people who never existed.
But the Afghan claims in the case of Azizabad have been backed by the United Nations' own preliminary investigation, which said that some 60 children were among 90 people killed.
The dispute over the Azizabad raid has soured relations between Karzai and his key foreign supporters — the United States and other nations with troops fighting against the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials say U.S. special forces and Afghan commandos raided the village while hundreds of people were gathered in a large compound for a memorial service honoring a tribal leader, Timor Shah, who was killed eight months ago by a rival.
Numbers in dispute
A U.S. report released Tuesday said that up to seven civilians and between 30 and 35 Taliban militants were killed in the Azizabad operation.
The U.S. said its casualty numbers were determined by observation of militant movements during the engagement and onsite observations immediately after the battle.
Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, said in a statement Wednesday that he "concurs with the findings" released by U.S.-led coalition command, whose troops were involved in the raid.
The U.S. report said American and Afghan forces approaching Azizabad took fire from militants that "justified use of well-aimed small-arms fire and close air support to defend the combined force."
Afghan and some Western officials say there is video and photo evidence to prove their assertion that a large number of children were killed during the Azizabad raid.
None of that material has been made public yet.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.