WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Thirty-three Afghan civilians died during U.S. air strikes in August on a village in western Afghanistan, the U.S. military has said, dramatically increasing the U.S. estimate of the death toll in an action that has strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
A new military inquiry into the August 22 attack on the village of Azizabad in Herat Province also lowered the U.S. estimate for the number of militants believed to have died, to 22 guerrillas from an initial estimate of 30 to 35.
The United States first reported only five to seven civilian deaths in the attack. That outraged Afghans and opened a rift with the Afghan government and the United Nations, which both said more than 90 civilians had been killed.
The military revisited its investigation after cell phone video emerged showing the bodies of people who were said to have died.
The latest U.S. civilian-death estimate includes at least eight men, three women, and 12 children, all identified by gender from video footage taken after the attack.
New findings were released by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida, which oversees U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. But the full investigation report is classified, according to military officials.
Neither a CENTCOM release nor a six-page executive summary from investigating officer U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Michael Callan explained the discrepancies in U.S.-reported deaths.'Deeply Saddened'
But Callan dismissed the higher death tolls reported by the Afghan government and the United Nations, saying those investigations relied primarily on villager statements, limited forensic evidence, and no access to "multidisciplined intelligence architecture."
"We are deeply saddened at the loss of innocent life in Azizabad," said Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, the acting CENTCOM commander, who blamed the civilian deaths on insurgents who he said "routinely surround themselves with innocents."
Callan said the August military action was defensive, based on credible intelligence and within the rules of engagements and the law of war.
His executive summary said the air attacks were carried out by an AC-130H gunship to defend U.S. and Afghan ground forces who came under fire from militants while trying to locate a "high-value individual" in Azizabad.
The U.S. commander "established positive identification of legitimate targets prior to engagement. Unfortunately and unknown to the U.S. and Afghan forces, the [militants] chose fighting positions in close proximity to civilians," Callan wrote.
The latest U.S. investigation included independent information collected from witnesses to the Azizabad attack and from previous investigations.
Investigators recommended improved cooperation between U.S. forces, the Afghan government, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations to assist investigations.
"There's no other military in the world that goes to greater extent to prevent civilian casualties. This is something that we take very seriously and, when we have allegations of loss of innocent life, we investigate it," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that a surge in the use of air power in Afghanistan had resulted in a high number of civilian casualties, estimating that 119 civilians died in the first seven months of 2008.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered his condolences for the deaths of civilians in coalition air strikes in Kabul last month and acknowledged that the United States needed to work harder to prevent them.