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U.S. Rejects Charge That Dead Afghans Were Civilians

KABUL (Reuters) -- Two Afghans shot dead by U.S.-led forces were not civilians, U.S. military has said, disputing a provincial police chief's claim that the men were farmers watering their land.

Abdul Qayum Bagzoi, provincial police chief for Khost in east Afghanistan, told Reuters that NATO-led troops had killed two innocent Afghan farmers just outside the city of Khost.

President Hamid Karzai has said civilian casualties are the biggest cause of tension between him and his Western backers, who have about 70,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting a Taliban-led insurgency.

But a U.S. forces spokesman said a night patrol on March 24 came across two military-aged males who were digging next to a road after a curfew in an area where many bomb attacks have taken place.

"They were not civilians, to the best of our knowledge," U.S. spokesman Colonel Greg Julian said.

The incident follows a dispute between U.S. military and the Afghan government over the deaths of five Afghans killed in northern Konduz Province during a U.S. raid last week.

Officials said the dead were not militants but employees of a district mayor, but U.S. military said intelligence had led them to a compound where they responded to hostile fire.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than in 2007, the United Nations stated. Around one-quarter of those people were killed by international forces, it said.

Separately in Khost, a roadside bomb killed eight civilians aboard a minibus and wounded eight, NATO-led forces said.