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Airstrikes reportedly kill 25 Afghan civilians

Taliban initiated battle, officials say

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan officials said 25 civilians, including three infants and nine women, were killed in NATO airstrikes yesterday in southern Afghanistan. NATO said today that about 20 insurgents were killed in the battle and 60 more died along the border with Pakistan.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said it was investigating police reports that the civilians were killed during a seven-hour firefight yesterday in Kandahar Province.

In a separate battle, a group of about 60 insurgents attempted to attack Afghan and NATO forces yesterday in the Bermel district of Paktika Province, near the Pakistan border. The insurgents fired on aircraft, and NATO and US-led coalition forces returned fire.

NATO officials accused the Taliban of provoking the fighting that led to the reported civilian deaths.

Separately, a Dutch general alleged yesterday that insurgents executed villagers during another battle.

The mounting civilian casualty toll in Afghanistan has been eroding public support for the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

After the report of the latest deaths, Karzai told the BBC that accidental killings and injuries of civilians at the hands of coalition forces are "difficult for us to accept or understand."

The Afghan leader repeatedly has appealed to international forces to exercise greater caution during clashes in civilian areas. NATO has accused the Taliban of intentionally using civilians as shields.

It was the second report this week of multiple civilian casualties in airstrikes aimed at insurgents. On Monday, seven children 10 to 16 years old were killed when US forces bombed a compound forces said militants were using as a hideout.

The latest deaths occurred in Helmand Province, in the former Taliban heartland that recently has been the scene of heavy fighting between NATO forces and insurgents.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that Western and Afghan troops were attacked Thursday night by Taliban fighters about 10 miles northeast of Gereshk. In response, the NATO forces called in an airstrike on a compound where about 30 insurgents were thought to be hiding.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Smith, a NATO spokesman, said, "it must be noted that it was the insurgents who initiated this attack. . . . The risk to civilians was probably deliberate."

Counts of civilian deaths in Western military operations vary. A consortium of aid groups last week put the toll so far this year at 230. Other independent estimates are in the range of about 175, including the latest reported casualties. About the same number of noncombatants are thought to have died this year in attacks by insurgents, including suicide bombings, which generally are aimed at Western and Afghan forces but often kill civilian bystanders.

About 28,000 US troops are serving in Afghanistan, together with 20,000 from other NATO countries. Most episodes of large-scale civilian fatalities have involved US forces. Senior US commanders apologized after troops fired on civilians on a busy highway in March near the eastern city of Jalalabad after their convoy came under attack. At least 19 people were killed, and Afghan officials and human rights groups said the soldiers had fired indiscriminately at civilian vehicles and passersby.

NATO commanders are adamant that the militants deserve most of the blame for the toll among Afghan civilians.

Yesterday, General Dick Berlijn, commander of the Dutch military, painted the militants as murderous desperadoes. Taliban fighters tried to force villagers to fight alongside them "and killed citizens who refused. They were hauled out of their houses by the Taliban and executed," Berlijn told reporters in The Hague.