Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. military of not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties during battles in Afghanistan and called Friday for "fundamental changes" to prevent civilian deaths like those during an airstrike this month.
The New York-based organization said its preliminary investigation into a May 4-5 clash that killed scores of people, including many women and children, found that measures put in place by the U.S. military to safeguard civilians were "inadequate."
Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the deaths and destruction in two villages in western Farah province. American officials say the Taliban held villagers hostage during the fight.
It is unclear exactly how many people died in the fighting in Bala Baluk district. The Afghan government has paid out compensation to families for 140 dead, based on a list gathered from villagers. The U.S. military has said that figure is exaggerated but has not given its own estimate.
If the Afghan toll is correct, it would be the largest case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.
Poppies and bomb blasts
Villagers told the watchdog group that the fighting broke out after Taliban arrived demanding a share of their poppy income, but it was during the bombings that most of the civilians were killed. It was not clear if the poppy dispute sparked the fighting, Human Rights Watch researcher Rachel Reid said.
The group reiterated its condemnation for Taliban practices of using civilians as human shields and deploying its fighters in populated areas but said its interviews did not suggest residents were used as human shields in Bala Baluk.
"The villagers that we spoke to did not say that they had been forced to stay in their homes. So we do not yet have any evidence of Taliban shielding," Reid said. "There was some evidence to suggest that there were some Taliban present during the bombings."
Villagers interviewed did not say that the Taliban threw grenades at civilians, which the U.S. has said may have caused some of the deaths.
Villagers also told researchers that the firefight between Taliban and Afghan and U.S. forces had ended before the evening bombing began, though some did say Taliban were still in the compounds. The U.S. has said militants were still firing in the villages when it dropped bombs on the site in the evening.
"Even if some Taliban remained in the village, dropping a dozen bombs into a residential area doesn't seem to make much sense," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in a statement.
"The U.S. needs to answer some basic questions about the sources and quality of information it requires before authorizing these kinds of devastating bombing runs," Adams said.
U.S. military guidelines issued following a previous battle that resulted in a number of civilian deaths tells commanders taking fire from an Afghan house to "satisfy themselves that every effort has been made to confirm that the Afghan facility does not shelter innocent civilians."
Human Rights Watch noted that international troops have also been told to consider pulling out of firefights in areas with large numbers of civilians.
Taking on the Taliban
Two international troops, meanwhile, were killed in fighting with insurgents in the east Friday. NATO forces said the service members were attacked while on patrol, but did not provide other details or their nationalities.
In the south, a provincial official said 22 Taliban militants, including three regional commanders, were killed in overnight fighting.
On Thursday, a band of Taliban fighters attacked two police checkpoints in Helmand province's Nawzad district, taking control of the stations and forcing the officers to flee, said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
The police launched a counterattack with the help of an airstrike, killing 22 insurgents. Three men who acted as Taliban chiefs in Nawzad and surrounding districts were among the dead, Ahmadi said. He said no Afghan forces died in the fighting.
In Khost province rockets apparently aimed at U.S. military Camp Salerno landed in nearby villages killing two people and wounding nine, said provincial police spokesman Wazir Pacha. It was unclear who fired rockets.
Also Friday, a U.S. Predator drone crashed in the east for unspecified reasons. The drone was not shot down and the cause of the crash was being investigated, the U.S. said in a statement.