WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, says that video of air strikes in early May in western Afghanistan supports the U.S. military's assertion that most of the casualties were Taliban fighters.
"What the video will prove is that the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban,” Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said in excerpts from a National Public Radio interview to be aired on May 29. He does not dispute that civilians were killed.
Petraeus told NPR that the Pentagon plans to release the video in a media briefing in coming days.
Afghan officials have put the death toll in the controversial strikes as high as 140 and say bombs hit houses in two villages in western Farah Province in which mostly women and children were hiding.
The U.S. military acknowledges 20-35 civilians were among 80-95 mostly Taliban fighters killed in the strikes during a May 3 battle in which U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces were attacked. It said the Taliban used the villagers as human shields.
The United States and Afghanistan are jointly investigating reports of civilian casualties that are undermining support for the U.S.- and NATO-led mission.
Petraeus said he had been briefed by the brigadier general he appointed to the investigation.
"There is indeed video from a B-1 Bomber that very clearly shows bombs hitting individuals who are the Taliban who are reacting to the movements of the Afghan and coalition forces on the ground," Petraeus said.
Addressing how the men are identified as Taliban, Petraeus said a combination of intelligence reports and sources were confirmed by the video.
"What's material is that innocent civilians were killed in this incident along...with a substantial number of Taliban," Petraeus said.
Civilian casualties have become a deep source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his U.S. backers, especially since an incident last August in which Afghan and UN investigators say U.S. strikes killed 90 civilians.
Washington initially denied killing large numbers of civilians in that incident, only to acknowledge three months later it had killed at least 33.