U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed five suspected militants during a raid in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, the coalition said in a statement. But the local mayor said his house was targeted and that the dead included his cook and driver.
Civilian deaths in coalition raids are an increasingly sensitive issue with President Hamid Karzai in the fight against the Taliban and other militants. The raids are often conducted with Afghan forces but the joint operations have done little to dampen anger at international troops over civilian casualties.
Such deaths turn residents against the foreign troops that back Karzai's government. But U.S. and NATO officials say militants regularly operate out of homes and portray dead fighters as civilians to stoke public anger.
Independent confirmation was impossible Sunday — as is often the case — because of the remoteness of the area.
Hundreds gather to protest raid
Abdul Rahman Akhtash, the deputy provincial police chief, said about 300 people gathered to protest the raid.
A coalition statement said five militants were killed and four others were detained during the early morning raid targeting a "terrorist network" in Kunduz province, close to the border with Tajikistan.
It said one militant was killed in the initial assault on a compound, and the rest died after troops asked for noncombatants to leave the buildings and instead were "engaged with small arms fire."
But Abdul Manan, mayor of Imam Sahib district, said the raid targeted his house and killed two of his guards, a cook, a driver and another man.
The Interior Ministry said only that "five of our countrymen" were killed in the mayor's house, and a spokesman declined to label them as either militants or civilians.
"The Interior Ministry is deeply sad about this and we are sending a delegation to investigate," the ministry said in a statement.
Manan said the helicopter-borne forces blew open the compound gates. He said he was hunkered down inside a room with his wife and children and had no contact with the troops during the raid.
The coalition statement said "no women or children were present in the targeted attacks."
Record number of civilians
A record 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan war last year, a 40 percent increase over 2007, the U.N. has reported. It said U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39 percent of the total.
Also Sunday, a roadside bomb exploded in eastern Khost province, killing one road construction worker and wounding 11 others who were traveling in a vehicle to their job northeast of Khost city, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Militants regularly plant roadside bombs targeting Afghan and foreign troops, but many of the victims have been civilians. The number of such attacks rose by 30 percent in 2008, according to NATO.