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U.S. Military Says 15 Militants Killed In Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S.-led coalition forces killed 15 militants, including one woman, during an operation targeting a Taliban commander in the eastern Afghan province of Laghman overnight, the U.S. military has said.

A provincial Afghan official and a village elder told Reuters up to 22 civilians had been killed during the raid, an assertion denied by the U.S. military, which said it had no reports of civilian deaths "at this point."

"There was a ground operation targeting a Taliban commander. A number of militants maneuvered on the force with small-arms fire," U.S. military spokesman Colonel Greg Julian said.

Eleven militants were killed by small arms fire while four were killed by close air support, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"In an area where there was no threat to civilians, precision air weapons, not bombs, were used," Julian said.

Malik Rahman Gul, a village elder, said 21 civilians were killed in the raid, while a provincial official put the figure at 22.

"Their bodies are on the ground. If you [Afghan government] do not believe us, you have helicopters and you should come to the area and see that these are civilians," Gul told Reuters by telephone.

The governor of Laghman Province told Reuters he had received allegations of civilian deaths from residents and was sending a team to investigate. The U.S. military said they would also investigate any claims of civilian casualties.

"If allegations arise over civilian deaths then we will conduct an investigation," Julian said.

Up to a hundred protesters gathered in the provincial capital to demonstrate against the alleged civilian killings, a Reuters witness said.

The issue of civilian casualties is sensitive in Afghanistan and has eroded public support for international troops in the country and has driven a wedge between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers.

During the operation, which took place in Mehtar Lam district, some 60 kilometers east of Kabul, soldiers searched several compounds and identified one of the killed militants as a woman, the U.S. military said.

"She was killed while manoeuvring on coalition forces and was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade," the U.S. military said.

None of the reports could be independently verified by Reuters.

In another incident, a soldier from the NATO-led force shot dead a civilian, believed to be burying an explosive device near a military base in Gereshk district of southern Helmand Province on January 22, the alliance said on January 24.

A later investigation revealed the man was a civilian and had not been burying any explosive device, a spokesman for the force said.

Violence has surged in the war-torn country with around 5,000 people, including 2,000 civilians, killed as a result of the conflict last year alone, aid agencies say.