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U.S. Says Probe Finds Lower Afghan Civilian Death Toll

KABUL -- The U.S. military has disputed the toll of 96 civilians the Afghan government and United Nations said were killed in an air strike last month, saying only five to seven civilians had died.

Public anger has been mounting in recent days in Afghanistan over allegations of civilian casualties, including children, and opened up a rift between the Afghan government and the foreign coalition forces that back it.

The U.S. military said its investigation of the August 22 operation in the Shindand district of Herat found that 30 to 35 Taliban militants were also killed, including a commander, in the U.S.-led coalition air strike.

The Afghan government has said mostly women and children died in the bombardment, an allegation backed by the United Nations.

President Hamid Karzai, under increasing pressure to stop civilian casualties, called for a review of combat operations by foreign forces following the air strikes in Herat.

The U.S. military said its findings were based on video taken during the operation and topographic photo comparisons of the area before and after the strikes, including analysis of burial sites in the area.

Reports from local clinics and hospitals were also examined, a U.S. military statement said.

"The investigation found that 30 to 35 Taliban militants were killed, including evidence suggesting a known Taliban commander, Mullah Sadiq, was among them," it said. "In addition, five to seven civilians were killed, two civilians were injured and subsequently treated by coalition forces, and five Taliban were detained."

More than 500 civilians have been killed during operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants so far this year, according to the Afghan government and some aid groups.

Mounting Toll

On Tuesday, the NATO-led force in Afghanistan said the death toll from an incident in southeast Paktika Province, in which troops accidentally fired artillery near a house, had gone up to four following the death of a child.

Troops opened fire after they were attacked during a raid on September 1 but the artillery rounds landed near the house of the victims, it said earlier.

Western military officials say Taliban fighters deliberately use civilians as cover, drawing coalition firepower onto noncombatants in an attempt to reap propaganda gains.

In the latest case, the U.S. military said its probe found that close air support had become necessary after Afghan National Army and U.S.-led coalition forces began taking intense fire from insurgents during the operation in Shindand.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan this year as the Taliban have stepped up their campaign of guerrilla attacks backed by suicide and roadside bombs to oust the pro-Western Karzai government and drive out foreign troops.