Afghan villagers are mourning relatives that they have buried in mass graves after a coalition air strike earlier in the week that the Red Cross says killed dozens of people, including women and children.
U.S. and Afghan government officials have rushed to the Bala Bulak district of Farah Province to investigate what happened, but all sides say noncombatants are among the casualties.
The timing of the news was particularly awkward politically, as it came ahead of tripartite talks in Washington
between U.S. President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret over the incident at a joint press conference attended by the visiting presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two focal points of the U.S.-led counterterrorism effort.
"I wish to express my personal regret and certainly the sympathy of our administration on the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan. We deeply regret it," Clinton said. "We don't know all of the circumstances or causes, and there will be a joint investigation by your government and ours, but any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful."
Local Afghan officials say more than 100 civilians may have been killed by the nighttime bombing at the villages of Geraani and Ganj Abad on May 4.
"I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life, and we deeply, deeply regret that loss," Clinton said.'Human Shields'
Rohul Amin, the governor of Farah province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he fears as many as 100 civilian deaths. But Amin assigned at least some of the blame for the tragedy to Taliban tactics -- including the use of innocent Afghans as human shields.
Clinton (center) with Presidents Karzai (left) and Zardari in Washington on May 6
He said Taliban fighters had infiltrated a few villages in the Bala Bulak district in recent weeks and fought off efforts by local police to force them out. Amin said the fighting escalated after police called on the Afghan National Army and international coalition forces for help.
Amin described "fierce" fighting in which Taliban fighters were using heavy weapons before coalition forces intervened and then used air power. He said locals claimed most of the dead Taliban were foreigners, although that has not been confirmed.
"You know that in such situations the Taliban always turn people's houses into fighting positions and use civilians as human shields," Amin said. "By doing so, they want to cause civilian casualties to discredit [the Afghan government and its allies]. Yet again they have done so."Differing Account
Senator Ghulam Farooq -- who represents Farah Province in the upper house of the Afghan parliament -- said there were no Taliban were hiding in the area at the time of the air strikes.
"Coalition aircraft killed up to 150 women and children in Geraani village," Farooq told Radio Free Afghanistan from Kabul. "The governor of Farah is completely wrong in claiming that they were Taliban. None of them were Taliban; all were women and children."
But Ghafar Watandar, the provincial police chief who is in the area of the fighting, accused Taliban fighters of using the civilians as human shields -- saying the militants herded villagers together into houses that were later struck by coalition warplanes. Watandar said the death toll could be even higher.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi has claimed that all casualties from air strikes were civilians.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan acknowledged that they were involved in fighting and air strikes in the district. They said their role in the fighting began on May 4 and continued into the next day after Taliban militants seized one village and clashed with Afghan troops.On The Scene
Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said her organization sent a team which reached the scene of the air strikes on May 5.
"When our team arrived in the villages in the afternoon, they saw dozens of bodies in two areas where the fighting and bombing had taken place," Barry said. "In two villages, they saw graves and they saw people being buried, and they understand from the community first aid workers from the Afghan Red Crescent who were on the spot that they had treated dozens of casualties who had already been evacuated."
Barry said that team saw houses that had been destroyed and dozens of bodies -- the first international confirmation of the attack. But she said the Red Cross workers could not determine whether Taliban fighters were among the dead.
"We understand there were civilian casualties. These were civilians; it was women and children," Barry said. "What is so important -- and I must stress in this that no matter which side is fighting -- when there is fighting, civilians have to be kept safe. They must not be targeted, and they must not be allowed to be involved in the fighting."
One man claiming to be from the village of Geraani called Radio Free Afghanistan on May 5 after the bombing. He said the air strikes were targeting Taliban fighters but had killed many civilians.
"The Taliban are roaming around here. And the airplanes are bombing us," the man said. "Some 120 or 130 civilians -- including women and children -- have died. The Taliban are still here as the aircrafts continue to bomb them from above."'Work Together'
With President Karzai's reelection bid just months away and speculation that he's out of favor with U.S. policymakers, Karzai has called civilian deaths "unjustifiable and unacceptable."
But in Washington along with his Pakistani counterpart for the three-party talks with Clinton and Obama, Karzai emphasized cooperation to curb terrorism and help stabilize the region.
"Thank you very much for showing concern and regret for the civilian casualties that are caused, especially for the one that was caused yesterday," Karzai said during his press conference with Secretary Clinton and Pakistani President Zardari. "We appreciate that, and we hope we can work together toward reducing and, eventually, completely removing the possibilities of civilian casualties as we move ahead in our war against terrorism."
Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has arrived in Afghanistan as U.S. officials were launching their joint investigation with Afghan authorities.With contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
, and additional wire reporting