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In Afghanistan, both sides wage information warfare

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan elders yesterday said that 108 civilians were killed in a bombing campaign in western Afghanistan, while villagers in the northeast said 25 Afghans died in airstrikes, including some who were killed while burying dead relatives.

US and NATO leaders, however, said they have no information to substantiate the reports of civilian deaths, and a US official said Taliban fighters are forcing villagers to say civilians died in fighting -- whether or not it is true.

Government officials who reported the deaths yesterday could not confirm the reports, which came from dangerous and remote regions inaccessible to journalists and independent researchers.

The assertions and denials of civilian casualties are part of an increasing campaign of information warfare the Taliban and Western militaries have engaged in alongside conventional fighting.

Adrian Edwards, the United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan, said the reliability of government reports is crucial to addressing the very real problem of civilian casualties. The UN also has not been able to confirm the most recent casualty reports.

"If figures are coming up quickly, it's my sense that they probably need to be taken with a pinch of salt," Edwards said. "But it also doesn't help if it's two or three weeks before the information comes out."

Civilian deaths are a recurring problem that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly deplored. The latest reports come at a time of increasing concern in European capitals over Afghan casualties, an issue that threatens to derail the NATO mission here.

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Pollack, a US officer at the main American base in Bagram, said Taliban militants have been told to fight in civilian areas because civilian deaths caused by the United States or NATO give the fighters a propaganda victory. He said payments to the families of Afghans killed or wounded in fighting could also be fueling the reports.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who said he speaks for the militants, said there was no need to use civilian homes during fighting. He denied militants were forcing villagers to inflate casualty numbers.

Independent counts of civilian deaths by the UN and the Associated Press both show that the United States and NATO have caused more civilians deaths this year than the Taliban. As of July 1, a UN tally showed that of civilian deaths this year, 314 were caused by international or Afghan security forces, and 279 by insurgents. A similar AP count, though lower, shows the same trend: 213 killed by the United States or NATO and 180 by the Taliban.