Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE -

Afghans, U.S. dif­fer on re­port of civil­ian deaths,

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan of­fi­cials said Mon­day that 52 peo­ple were killed in south­ern Afghanistan on Fri­day when a rocket fired by coali­tion forces slammed into a house where women and chil­dren had taken shel­ter from fight­ing be­tween NATO troops and mil­i­tants. But U.S. of­fi­cials dis­puted the ac­count.

If the toll is ac­cu­rate, the at­tack will be one of the worst cases of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in the nine-year war. It comes as a leak of thou­sands of mil­i­tary doc­u­ments Sun­day casts new scru­tiny on whether U.S. and coali­tion forces have taken enough care to avoid civil­ian deaths and whether the mil­i­tary has re­ported all of them.

The Afghan govern­ment said its in­for­ma­tion about the re­ported at­tack — which took place in the San­gin district of Hel­mand prov­ince, one of the dead­li­est ar­eas for NATO troops in re­cent years — came from its in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, the Na­tional Di­rec­torate of Se­cu­rity.

But late Mon­day, the U.S.-led mil­i­tary com­mand in Kabul said that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion it was con­duct­ing with Afghan of­fi­cials “has thus far re­vealed no ev­i­dence of civil­ians in­jured or killed.” How­ever, it was not im­me­di­ately clear whether the NATO in­ves­tiga­tive team had reached the scene.

In­ter­viewed by tele­phone, wit­nesses from the area where the at­tack was sup­posed to have taken place said that on Fri­day, a U.S. mil­i­tary force en­gaged Tal­iban mil­i­tants in an in­tense fire­fight in two re­mote vil­lages. Tal­iban fight­ers warned res­i­dents to leave. Many fled to Rigi, a re­mote vil­lage with only half a dozen homes.

Women and chil­dren from about eight fam­i­lies were packed into one home, and many of the men took shel­ter in the for­est around the vil­lage, they said. About 4:30 p.m., they heard the first of two ex­plo­sions that blan­keted Rigi in smoke as mil­i­tary air­craft flew over­head, the vil­lagers said.

One res­i­dent, Mo­hammed Us­man, 57, said he helped pull the bod­ies of 17 chil­dren and seven women from the rub­ble.

“They have ru­ined us, and they have killed small chil­dren and in­no­cent women,” he said. “God will never for­give them.”

Res­i­dent Ab­dul Sa­mad said, “They tar­geted an area which we be­lieved was safer.”

He said U.S. forces came to Rigi the next day and said they had fired be­cause they had ob­served a man car­ry­ing a weapon.

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