An Afghan official said militants fled into homes, which NATO then struck.
LAY KUNDI, Afghanistan (AP) -- Dozens of civilians were killed in a NATO military strike against suspected Taliban militants, Afghan officials said Thursday. Villagers fled the southern region by car and donkey, and hundreds attended a funeral for some 20 people buried in a mass grave.
The civilian deaths -- estimated by Afghan officials at between 30 and 85, including many women and children -- are among the highest in any foreign military action here since the fall of the Taliban and could turn residents against the counterinsurgency campaign.
NATO said a preliminary review found that 12 civilians were killed in the clashes Tuesday in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province, the Taliban's former southern stronghold. But the alliance could not say if they had died because of Taliban or NATO action.
Maj. Luke Knittig, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said up to 70 militants may have been killed in three clashes. The fighting took place in or around the villages of Lay Kundi and Mirwisa Mina.
Knittig said Taliban fighters attacked NATO forces, and that return artillery fire and airstrikes were aimed at militants.
Bismallah Afghanmal, a provincial council member, said fighters fled into civilian homes, which were then attacked by NATO forces.
"With insurgents who regard the population as a form of human shield for themselves it obviously makes life very difficult for us, but it does not stop us from making every effort to ensure that we minimize any problems," said Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman.
But villagers and local government officials denounced NATO and blamed the government for a lack of security.
"The people are not forgetting the deaths of their children after a simple 'sorry,"' Afghanmal said.
Despite Afghanmal's remarks that the fighters had run into civilian homes, villagers insisted there were no Taliban in their midst.
"Everyone is very angry at the government and the coalition. There was no Taliban," Abdul Aye, who lives in Mirwisa Mina, said through tears at the mass funeral in Kandahar city. He said 22 members of his family were killed. "These tragedies just keep continuing."
Hard to pin down
Death tolls in remote military action in Afghanistan are difficult to pin down, and estimates often vary widely. Also in question is who can be considered a civilian and who is a fighter.
It is possible that the villagers were referring to hard-core Taliban fighters who have crossed the border from Pakistan. Afghan and NATO officials say only a small percentage of militant fighters subscribe to the Taliban's ultraconservative ideology, and many of the militants are believed to fight only for a paycheck or because they have been threatened.
Asked how NATO determines when and whom to attack, Laity told the British Broadcasting Corp. that "we're not going to attack people who aren't carrying weapons."
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