KABUL, Afghanistan | Video footage of a bombing raid by U.S. forces earlier this month on a village in western Afghanistan “very clearly” shows that Taliban militants were targeted and it accounts for most of those killed, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and South Asia said Friday.
“What the video will prove is that the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of Central Command, told National Public Radio.
Gen. Petraeus’ assertion stands in contrast to testimony by locals that militants had left the area several hours before the May 4 bombardments in Farah province’s Bala Boluk district, as well as an independent report from a leading rights group that a limited number of Taliban may have been present.
The Afghan government claims that at least 140 people died, including 95 children. If confirmed, this would amount to the largest number of civilians killed in a military action here since U.S.-led forces ousted a Taliban government in 2001.
In the three weeks since the incident, anti-American demonstrations have risen amid official calls for a review of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Asked how the figures in the video were identified, Gen. Petraeus said their status was corroborated by intelligence reports and other sources and “then confirmed by this actual video.”
The U.S. military said last week that footage taken from a B-1 Bomber showed two groups of about 30 people entering village homes before they were hit with 2,000-pound bombs. A spokesman for U.S. forces said that “other information” that could not yet be released proved they were Taliban fighters.
According to Gen. Petraeus, the Pentagon plans to release the video at press briefing in the near future.
Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a U.S. military spokesman, explained the video evidence had not yet been made public because it had to be thoroughly vetted up the chain of command and that conclusive results were essential.
“Are we concerned this is taking so long? Not really,” he said. “It’s more important that the truth is presented as we know it.”
The death toll and sequence of events in Farah are widely disputed, though it is agreed that Taliban militants initiated a running gunbattle with U.S.-backed Afghan security forces who later called in air support.
A weeklong investigation by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that as many as 97 people may have died in the attack. Of the total, 86 were said to be civilians.
An uncertain number of militants were also killed - 25 to 30 based on accounts from local authorities, though investigators say it was not clear whether they died in the initial fighting or from subsequent air strikes.
U.S. officials maintain that between 20 and 30 civilians died, with the majority of those killed being Taliban.
Homayoun Farahi, a native of Farah who went to search for his family the day after the attack, told The Washington Times that 19 of his relatives had died and he presented a list of their names and ages.
He arrived on the scene several days before the joint U.S.-Afghan team. Most of the bodies had been buried before he arrived, he said, with the remains of at least 50 inside a mass grave.
Other Bala Boluk residents contacted separately by The Times said they had lost at least 10 family members. All said they had been compensated with $2,000, paid by Afghan authorities.
Underscoring the damage done to the coalition’s hearts and minds campaign, Gen. Petraeus said he did not want to “dispute about numbers and all the rest of that. What’s material is that innocent civilians were killed in this incident along, again, with a substantial number of Taliban.” He added, “And that clearly shows that, again, we have to continually examine the directive that is given to our forces and … how they understand to employ it.”
According to U.N. figures, 2,118 civilians died in conflict-related violence last year, a jump of nearly 40 percent over 2007.
Of that toll, pro-government forces were held responsible for 828 deaths, largely from errant air strikes and raids.
After another controversial air strike in Herat province last August that resulted in large-scale civilian casualties, then-U.S. commander Gen. David McKiernan issued a tactical directive mandating that officers on the ground confirm sources of incoming fire do not harbor civilians, which the Taliban frequently uses as human shields.
Afghan lawmakers have repeatedly called for an end to air strikes, but the U.S. military says it cannot rule out the tactic.