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Scores Killed In Air Strikes, Ground Assault In Afghanistan

A man injured in the air strikes receives treatment in Kandahar (epa) KANDAHAR, Afghanistan; May 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says coalition air strikes at a village near the southern city of Kandahar killed up to 80 Taliban fighters overnight, but residents claim dozens of civilians are among the dead.

Meanwhile, the governor of Kandahar said earlier today that Afghan and U.S. ground troops were continuing to fight Taliban militants in the area.

Purported Taliban Strongholds

U.S. officials said the overnight air strikes hit Taliban strongholds in the Panjwari district of Kandahar Province, about 25 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital.

A U.S. military statement says the air strikes targeted "active members of the Taliban network" who have been carrying out attacks against U.S. and Afghan government troops as well as local Afghan civilians.

Coalition forces say they have confirmed 20 Taliban were killed in the attack. Another 60 victims have yet to be confirmed as members of the Taliban.

Civilian Deaths

Miller also said the U.S. military has begun an investigation into reports that the air strikes caused many civilian deaths and injuries.

Assadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar Province, said U.S. and Afghan ground troops were continuing to battle the Taliban fighters in the afternoon. He said at least 60 Taliban fighters have been killed. But he also said at least 16 civilians have been killed by the ground and air assaults.

RFE/RL correspondent Jawed Ahmad Wafa visited the main hospital in Kandahar early today and confirmed that civilians injured by the air strikes have been taken there.

"Local civilians were also among the injured," Wafa said. "At Mirwais Hospital [in Kandahar], there were 15 people brought from the village. Doctors say some have serious injuries. There were women and children among them."

Concentrations Of Fighters

Wafa reported that the air strikes hit buildings in a small village called Toloqan. Nestled in a river valley that runs into nearby Helmand Province, it is an area where U.S.-led coalition forces have been battling large concentrations of Taliban fighters for several weeks.

Haji Ikhlaf, a relative of one of the injured civilians at Mirwais hospital, said today that Taliban fighters were hiding inside an Islamic religious school, or madrasah, after fierce fighting in the area in recent days.

He said some of the Taliban fighters ran from the madrasah into the homes of villagers nearby when U.S. helicopter gunships attacked the school compound overnight. He said those homes also were targeted by air strikes.

Ikhlaf said he saw up to 40 dead Taliban fighters. But he suggested that around 50 civilians had been killed or injured.

Fighting in the area has been heavy since May 17, with Afghan and U.S. officials saying nearly 200 suspected Taliban killed. Afghan and foreign troops also have been killed in the past week of fighting -- including two French soldiers, an American, and a Canadian.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawed Ahmad Wafi contributed to this report from Kandahar.)

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