U.S. airstrikes in western Afghanistan missed their target of a militant commander and instead killed 12 other militants and 10 civilians, provincial officials said Thursday.
The U.S. military originally said the strike killed a warlord named Mullah Mustafa but now say he apparently survived. In a statement issued Thursday, the U.S. said "credible reports surfaced that Mustafa survived the attack" in Ghor province.
The U.S. said it was investigating reports that civilians had been killed.
Rising violence in Afghanistan has been accompanied by a spike in civilian casualties, which has turned many against the international effort even though far more casualties are caused by insurgent attacks than military operations. The Afghan government has called on coalition forces to put in more safeguards to prevent civilian deaths during strikes.
In one of the most high-profile cases of civilian deaths, Afghan officials have accused coalition forces of killing 140 villagers with airstrikes during a May 4-5 assault in Farah province. U.S. commanders have said they believe no more than 30 civilians were killed, along with 60 to 65 Taliban insurgents.
Findings could be released Friday
The findings of a U.S. inquiry into those airstrikes are to be released as early as Friday, but the Pentagon earlier this week said U.S. troops did not follow proper tactics and procedures.
Ghor deputy Gov. Karimuddin Rezazada told The Associated Press that 10 civilians, including five children, and 12 militants were killed in Tuesday's airstrikes in Shahrak district. He cited reports from district officials and area security forces.
Rezazada said Mullah Mustafa was not killed in the attack. He did not provide further details but said he had dependable reports that Mustafa was alive.
The U.S. statement said "unsubstantiated reports of civilian casualties emerged" Thursday. The military said that its review of the operation supports the idea that all those killed were militants, but said they are still examining reports.
The U.S. previously said 16 of Mustafa's men were killed in the strike.
"Mustafa is an enemy of Afghanistan, and we're working with Afghan officials to pursue him until he is captured or confirmed killed," Lt. Cmdr Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said in the statement. "In addition, we are working closely with Afghan partners to investigate unconfirmed reports of civilians among Mustafa's party."
The U.S. said its forces had observed Mustafa moving by vehicle from his compound on Tuesday and launched the air attack when he stopped in a remote, unpopulated area with a number of associates.
Mustafa is said to command about 100 fighters and "reportedly had connections to" the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which is known to train Shiite militants from Middle Eastern countries, according to the U.S. military.
Links with the Taliban
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, said that the military was not implying that Mustafa has links with Iran's government, but that individual militants in Afghanistan may have links with individual militants in Iran.
Rezazada said Mustafa has links with the Taliban and was behind a string of attacks.
Taliban extremists are Sunni and have in the past been opposed to Iran's government.
Rezazada said that Mustafa is a Sunni Muslim, not a Shiite Muslim like most Iranians. Asked on Wednesday whether Mustafa has links with the Quds Brigade, Rezazada said: "Maybe yes, maybe no. We're not aware of that."
Meanwhile, clashes in the north killed 12 insurgents and one Afghan soldier, the government said Thursday.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Wednesday's fighting spanned three villages in Baghlan province. Provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhail said a combined international and Afghan force fought Taliban gunmen over the course of the day, eventually routing the militants from the area.
NATO also said its troops battled insurgents in western Baghdis on Wednesday. The international military coalition said Afghan and NATO forces "killed and wounded a significant number of insurgents," but did not give figures. No Afghan or NATO troops were killed, it said in a statement.