The head of a presidential delegation investigating the deaths of 10 people in eastern Afghanistan concluded Wednesday that civilians — including schoolchildren — were killed in an attack involving foreign troops, but NATO officials disputed that.
NATO spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said in a statement NATO has no direct evidence to substantiate the Afghan probe's findings, and the international force has requested an immediate joint investigation to find out what happened.
Asadullah Wafa, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, gave conflicting numbers on the schoolchildren. He told The Associated Press by telephone that eight schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 14 were among the dead discovered in a village house in the Narang district of Kunar province. But Reuters quoted him as saying that eight boys, ages 13 to 18, and two men in their 20s were killed.
A NATO official had said that initial reports from troops involved in the fighting on Sunday indicated that those killed were insurgents — all young males.
Civilian deaths are one of the most sensitive issues for foreign troops in Afghanistan, especially now when some additional 37,000 U.S. and NATO troops are being deployed to the war-ravaged country. Although far more civilians are killed by the Taliban, those blamed on international forces spark widespread resentment and undermine the fight against militants.
Afghans protested the deaths Wednesday in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and in the capital of Kabul.
In the capital of Nangahar province, which borders Kunar, around 200 university students took to the streets to protest against the raid, demanding those responsible be brought to justice.
"Death to Obama. Down with Karzai," they shouted.
Wafa said he was convinced all those killed in the Kunar incident were innocent civilians.
"I have talked to the principal of the school in the village and he gave us details about the killed children," Wafa said in Asadabad, the provincial capital of Kunar.
The bodies had already been buried by the time Wafa's team arrived. A joint Afghan-NATO probe will continue to investigate what happened.
Wafa said the villagers demanded from the 10-member delegation of government officials and lawmakers that informants "who gave the wrong target to the Americans must be found and punished by a court."
Karzai said in a statement Wednesday that he talked to the relatives of the Kunar victims to express his condolences and pledge to bring to justice those responsible for the attack.
Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said at a news conference Wednesday the allegations were being investigated together with Afghan authorities.
He said the force takes all such allegations seriously and goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
"In fact, you can see that our enemy, the insurgents, have very little regard for the Afghan people," he said. "We have noticed a very dramatic increase in civilian casualties caused by roadside bombs, by attacks that insurgents have on the Afghan people."
The latest figures released by the United Nations show that 2,021 civilians died during clashes in the first 10 months of this year, up from 1,838 for the same period last year. Taliban insurgents were blamed for 68 percent of the deaths this year — three times more than NATO forces, according to the U.N.
The weekend attack came in Kunar province, one of the most remote and unstable corners of eastern Afghanistan.