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ICRC: Dozens Of Civilians Died In Afghan Air Strikes


KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S.-led air strikes killed dozens of Afghans including women and children, the Red Cross has said, confirming an incident that could overshadow a meeting between the U.S. and Afghan leaders.

Rohul Amin, governor of western Farah Province, where the bombing took place during a battle on May 4 and May 5, said he feared 100 civilians had been killed. Provincial Police Chief Abdul Ghafar Watandar said the death toll could be even higher.

If confirmed, those figures could make the incident the single deadliest for Afghan civilians since the campaign to topple the Taliban in 2001.

President Hamid Karzai, who is in Washington where he was due later on May 6 to meet U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time since Obama's election, dispatched a joint U.S.-Afghan delegation to investigate the incident, his office said.

'Unjustifiable And Unacceptable'

"The president has termed the loss of civilians unjustifiable and unacceptable and will raise it with Obama," it said.

Jessica Barry, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the Geneva-based group had dispatched a team which reached the scene of the air strikes on the afternoon of May 5.

"There were women and there were children who were killed. It seemed they were trying to shelter in houses when they were hit," she said.

The team saw houses destroyed and dozens of dead bodies, providing the first international confirmation of the incident.

Barry said that among those killed was a first-aid volunteer for Afghanistan's Red Crescent, who died along with 13 members of his family.

U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan acknowledge they were involved in fighting and air strikes in the Bala Boluk district of the province, which began on May 4 and continued into May 5.

They say they are jointly investigating reports of civilian casualties alongside Afghan authorities.

Watandar, the provincial police chief, said Taliban guerrillas had used the civilians as human shields, herding them into houses in the villages of Geraani and Ganj Abad, that were then struck by U.S.-led coalition warplanes.

"The fighting was going on in another village, but the Taliban escaped to these two villages, where they used people as human shields. The air strikes killed about 120 civilians and destroyed 17 houses," he said, adding that the death toll was imprecise.

Villagers trucked about 30 dead bodies to the provincial capital, Farah City, on May 5 to prove that dozens had been killed in the strikes.