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Afghan Villagers Say Air Strike Killed Civilians

ASADABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Afghan authorities were checking reports on April 13 of civilian casualties from an overnight air strike by U.S.-led forces, after villagers in a remote region said five people had been killed.

Civilian deaths caused by foreign troops while hunting the Taliban have sapped support for the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan and become a major cause of friction between the government and its Western backers.

"We were having dinner when the attack happened. Five civilians were killed, children among them," village resident Ezatuallah, who uses one name, told Reuters by telephone from Wata Pur, a rugged district in eastern Kunar Province near the Pakistan border. He said ten people were wounded.

Zalmai Yousufzai, the district chief, said he was aware of the strike but had no information about casualties. A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul said he had no information about the strike but would check.

Last week five civilians, including an infant, were killed in a U.S.-led operation in southeastern Khost Province. U.S. forces acknowledged those deaths and apologized.

The number of civilians killed in operations by foreign forces while hunting Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan has steadily climbed, reaching hundreds last year, according to human right groups and the government.

U.S. and NATO commanders say insurgents are still responsible for most civilian deaths, but they have acknowledged that civilian deaths have cost the Western troops support.

Violence has surged in recent years with the Taliban having managed to extend the size and scope of their attacks.

This comes despite the growing number of foreign forces, now standing at more than 70,000. Some 21,000 more U.S. troops and more than 5,000 soldiers from other NATO countries are on their way.

U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban after its leadership refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.

Separately, two Afghan security guards working for a construction firm were killed in a roadside bomb attack in the eastern province of Khost on April 13, a provincial official said.