KABUL, Afghanistan | U.S. air strikes have killed dozens of civilians caught in the middle of anti-Taliban operations in western Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday.
In Washington, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai met Wednesday with top officials, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. deeply regretted the loss of life.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan said the Taliban may have started the fight by first beheading three locals to lure police and then killing many of the victims to turn villagers against Afghan and foreign troops.
A public furor over civilian casualties has inflamed tensions between the U.S.-led coalition and Mr. Karzai, who called the latest deaths “unacceptable” shortly before meeting President Obama at the White House.
Last summer, the U.S. military initially disputed claims by Afghan and U.N. officials of up to 90 civilian deaths from a strike in Herat province. After an investigation and widespread protests, the U.S. military put the death toll at 33.
In the latest incident, villagers initially claimed to news agencies that 70 to 100 people or more may have died in the bombing raids late Tuesday in Farah province, a Taliban stronghold that borders Iran and Helmand province, the main source of the country’s illicit opium trade.
ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry said a Red Cross team sent to investigate found leveled homes and dead bodies, including women and children.
“Their impression was that there were dozens of dead,” she told Agence France-Presse. “We can absolutely confirm that there are civilian casualties.” One victim was a community volunteer for the Afghan Red Crescent Society, who was killed with 13 members of his family, she said.
A U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan, Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, confirmed that U.S. forces engaged militants in the area and had since launched a joint investigation with Afghan authorities.
The governor of Farah province, Rohul Amin, said the situation escalated after the Taliban attacked police checkpoints on Monday and killed three officers in Bala Baluk district. Afghan army troops dispatched to the area faced stiff resistance and decided to call an air strike.
In total, about 30 Taliban died in the engagement, he said.
Mr. Amin said precise casualty figures were unavailable since the area is under Taliban control, adding that the deaths apparently resulted from attacks on homes where militants had taken shelter.
Western military officials say this is a common tactic used to draw coalition fire and exploit the backlash when innocents are killed.
The total number of civilians killed in Afghanistan jumped by almost 40 percent last year, according to U.N. figures. In 2008, 2,118 civilians were killed compared with 1,523 in 2007, by far the highest figure since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001.
Last month, NATO’s top spokesman, James Appathurai, announced a 39 percent reduction in civilian deaths in the first three months of this year versus the same period in 2008.