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Civilians Killed In Afghan Fighting, Cause Is Unclear

Buildings destroyed in earlier fighting in Helmand Province (file photo)
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Women and children were among 17 civilians killed in southern Afghanistan, an official said on October 17, but it was not clear if they were victims of a foreign air strike or Taliban rockets.

The issue of civilian casualties is an emotive one in Afghanistan. Civilian deaths in fighting feed the perception of many Afghans that foreign troops do not take enough care to avoid killing ordinary citizens, and fuel resentment at the NATO presence in the country.

"Around 17 civilians were killed when a house collapsed on them, but we don't know whether the foreign forces' air strikes or a rocket attack caused it," said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand Province.

The chief of the tribal council of Naad Ali district, where the deaths occurred on October 16, said air strikes killed 18 members of five families sheltering in the house from fighting.

"Loy Bagh village where the house was bombed is relatively calm compared with other villages in the district," said Abdul Ahad Helmandiwal. "We are still taking dead or wounded people out of the rubble."

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was investigating an incident involving an air strike in Naad Ali district, but said it was unable to confirm any civilian casualties.

A Reuters witness in Lashkar Gah, the nearby provincial capital of Helmand, said he saw six wounded people, including two children and a woman, brought to the hospital. Their families said they brought the wounded from Naad Ali district.

But the fatalities could not be independently verified due to clashes between Taliban fighters and ISAF-backed Afghan troops in the district, just west of Lashkar Gah.

The Afghan government sent a battalion of troops to Lashkar Gah on October 16 as reinforcements after at least two attempted Taliban attacks on the provincial capital in the past week which were halted by air strikes.

In a separate incident, Afghan and foreign troops killed and wounded around 50 Taliban insurgents in the Nerkh district of Maidan Wardak Province, southwest of the capital Kabul on October 16, provincial governor spokesman Adam Khan Seerat told Reuters.

Two Taliban commanders were also killed during the ongoing operation, Seerat said.

An ISAF spokesman said 20 Taliban militants were killed.

In the northeastern province of Kunar on the same day, an air strike launched by foreign troops killed 17 militants in Narang district, a senior Afghan army official said.

The air strike was called in when a group of insurgents fired rockets at an Afghan army outpost established to provide security for a voter registration center in the district.