A U.S. jet dropped 500-pound bombs on two tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban before dawn Friday, triggering a huge explosion that Afghan officials said killed more than 70 people, including insurgents and some civilians who had swarmed around the vehicles to siphon off fuel.
Germany, whose troops called in the 2:30 a.m. strike in the northern province of Kunduz, said it feared the hijackers would use the trucks to carry out a suicide attack against its military base nearby.
The airstrike took place as the U.S. wrestles with the level of its troop commitment here and despite efforts by the top U.S. general to curb use of air power and reduce civilian casualties, which have strained relations between the NATO force and the Afghan government. Hours earlier, the top Pentagon officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, said civilian casualties had recently been greatly reduced in Afghanistan.
Germany said about 50 fighters were killed and no civilians were believed in the area at the time. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, however, acknowledged some civilians may have died, and the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government announced a joint investigation.
Local government spokesman Mohammad Yawar said police found pieces of dozens of weapons scattered around the site. He estimated that more than 70 people were killed, at least 45 of them militants. Investigators were trying to account for the others, he said.
The local governor, Mohammad Omar, said 72 were killed and 15 wounded. He said about 30 of the dead were identified as insurgents, including four Chechens and a local Taliban commander. The rest were probably fighters or their relatives, he said.
Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and villagers buried some in a mass grave.
Despite the uncertainties, the attack is likely to intensify Afghan public anger over civilian casualties. Last June, the NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, ordered curbs on airstrikes where noncombatants are at risk.
In Washington, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday that McChrystal's new orders have started to reduce civilian casualties, but that the effort is "a process" as opposed to something instantly achieved.
A large number of civilian casualties in Friday's attack could also stoke opposition in Germany to the Afghan mission ahead of the Sept. 27 German national elections. There are 4,050 German soldiers in Afghanistan, and polls show a majority of Germans oppose their presence here.
Violence has soared across much of Afghanistan since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 U.S. troops here this year to curb the Taliban, which has regrouped and rearmed since American-led forces drove the hard-line Islamist group from power in November 2001. Fifty-one U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in August, the deadliest month of the war for American forces.
Friday's attack came a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled for the first time that he may be willing to send more troops.
Suicide attack feared
It began when Taliban gunmen seized the tankers near the German military base — possibly for a suicide attack against the installation, according to German Deputy Defense Minister Thomas Kossendey.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the Taliban had previously threatened to carry out attacks on the country's military, particularly as Germany's elections approach.
"So it was a very concrete situation of danger for the Taliban to get hold of two tankers, which meant significant danger for our soldiers," he told ARD television.
The German commander ordered the airstrike after an unmanned surveillance aircraft determined no civilians were in the area, German officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said a U.S. jet dropped two bombs 40 minutes after the request. It was unclear whether civilians began to gather during that time.
It was impossible to independently verify details because the attack was in an area where Taliban forces operate. Travel is risky, and the Germans refused to allow an Associated Press reporter to accompany them to the site. German troops who inspected the area hours afterward exchanged gunfire with militants but there were no German casualties, an army statement said.
'Come take free fuel'
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the trucks were intercepted on their way from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul. When the hijackers tried to drive the trucks across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads, he said.
Villagers swarmed the trucks to collect the fuel despite warnings that they might be hit with an airstrike, Mujahid said, claiming no Taliban fighters died in the attack.
Abdul Moman Omar Khel, a member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village, said about 500 people from surrounding communities swarmed the trucks after the Taliban invited them to help themselves to the fuel. Many were awake at that hour because of a late-night wedding party and festivities marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims can eat and drink only during hours of darkness.
"The Taliban called to the villagers, 'Come take free fuel,'" he said. "The people are so hungry and poor."
He said five people were killed from a single family, and a man he knows lost three sons.
NATO, Afghan forces criticized
Survivors expressed anger that NATO and Afghan forces were unable to provide enough security in the area to prevent Taliban violence.
"The Taliban were there from 2 p.m. yesterday," said Habibullah, the driver of one of the tanker trucks that was hijacked. "I informed the military about this and I told them they will hijack us. They told me that they will inform the (NATO) military about this. No one came to protect us."
Habibullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was interviewed in Kunduz city, about 15 miles from the site.
Abdul Ghafoor, whose brother was killed in the airstrike, said NATO soldiers have a duty to protect civilians.
"The vehicles they are driving around in are not for taking their families for sightseeing," he said. "The Taliban of this area are not good people."
Kunduz, a former Taliban stronghold, had been generally peaceful until insurgent attacks began rising earlier this year — perhaps an effort to control a profitable smuggling route from neighboring Tajikistan. Most of the fighting in Afghanistan this summer has been in the south and east, where U.S. and British forces operate.
Last May, U.S. warplanes struck military targets in the western Farah province, killing an estimated 60 to 65 insurgents. The U.S. said 20 to 30 civilians also died in those attacks. The Afghan government said 140 civilians were killed.
More on: Afghanistan