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U.S. disputes Afghan civilian death toll

Video evidence  and other reports suggest no more than 30 civilians were killed in a battle in Afghanistan, the U.S. military said Wednesday, a much lower number than  Afghan claims of  140 civilians killed.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Video evidence recorded by fighter jets and the account of the ground commander suggest no more than 30 civilians were killed in a two-day battle in western Afghanistan this month, the U.S. military said Wednesday, a stark contrast with Afghan claims that 140 civilians died.

The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds.

The figures, which the Americans called preliminary, are far lower than the numbers villagers provided to an Afghan government commission days after the May 4-5 battle in the villages of Gerani and Ganjabad in Farah province.

NBC News first reported on the interim investigation on Tuesday.

Julian said the exact number killed might never be known and U.S. investigators were still trying to determine what happened. U.S. investigators initially visited the area and said the number and size of the mass graves did not support the Afghan claims of 140 dead. No corpses were exhumed.

Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew's conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.

U.S. officials initially suggested that Taliban grenades may have been responsible for at least some of the civilian deaths. But in later statements, the military placed the blame on Taliban militants who put civilians at risk by dashing into their homes.

The United States has been criticized in recent weeks by Afghan officials after the controversial in the Bala Buluk district. A dispute on the number of civilians killed in the clash threatens to heighten tensions between the two nations.

If the Afghan commission's death toll of civilians is correct, the Bala Buluk incident would be the largest single case of civilian deaths since the 2001 invasion.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its military operations and not use airstrikes in the villages. He says civilian deaths at the hands of foreign troops erode support for the fight against the Taliban, who have made a comeback after they were ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Gun camera video from B-1 bomber
But according to U.S. officials, gun camera video from the B-1 bomber responsible for the strike shows a large number of Taliban fighters "regrouping" in a compound after a firefight with U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces, then entering two separate buildings.

The B-1 dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on the buildings, U.S. officials told NBC's Jim Miklaszewski.

The U.S. military officials contended that the civilians that were apparently in the buildings had been herded into the buildings beforehand and used as human shields by the Taliban, Miklaszewski reported. The official results of the interim military investigation are expected to be released within days.

Meanwhile, America's new ambassador to Afghanistan told victims of the clash Tuesday that the U.S. would work to avoid civilian casualties.

Karl Eikenberry's appearance alongside Karzai seemed to be an attempt to soothe the tension.

Addressing victims' families and others at the main mosque in Farah city, Eikenberry, a former U.S. general who served twice in Afghanistan, invoked his military honor to assure them that he meant what he said.

"I assure the people of Afghanistan that the United States will work tirelessly with your government, army and police, to find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians and avoid tragedies like what occurred in Bala Buluk," Eikenberry said, according to a transcript of remarks provided by the U.S. Embassy.

Distinguishing villagers from militants
Karzai urged America to distinguish between villagers and militants.

"All those people who wear a turban and have local clothes are not Taliban," Karzai told the gathering. U.S. troops "should cut down bombardment on them," he said.

America's top military officer warned Monday that the deaths of Afghan civilians caught up in U.S. combat operations could cripple President Barack Obama's revamped strategy for the seven-year-old war.

"We cannot succeed ... in Afghanistan by killing Afghan civilians," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen's comments follow accusations by New York-based Human Rights Watch that measures put in place by the U.S. military to safeguard civilians during operations were inadequate.

Villagers told the watchdog that fighting broke out in Bala Buluk after Taliban arrived demanding a share of their poppy income, but it was during U.S. airstrikes that most civilians were killed.

In its preliminary report last week, the group condemned the Taliban's practices of using civilians as human shields and deploying fighters in populated areas. But Human Rights Watch said its interviews did not suggest residents were used as human shields in Bala Buluk.

Eyewitness accounts
Villagers also told researchers that the firefight between Taliban and Afghan and U.S. forces had ended before the evening bombings began, though some did say Taliban were still in the compounds.

Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman, has said video shot from an American aircraft during the battle "strongly refutes" the allegation that airstrikes killed the majority of civilians, as alleged by villagers.

"You can see these insurgents running at the last two locations that were struck," Julian said, suggesting there were militants present in the later stages of the fight.

NBC's Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.