LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Six Afghan family members, including two women and a child, were wounded, a local hospital head said on Sunday, after a military operation supported by Western air power in southern Afghanistan.
Residents of the area, controlled by Taliban insurgents, said dozens of civilians, including women and children, had also been killed in aerial bombing.
But there was no way of independently verifying the reports and the U.S. military denied any civilian casualties.
The clash came late on Saturday in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, a long-time bastion for Taliban guerrillas and the biggest drug-producing region of Afghanistan.
At least six wounded were brought to a hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand.
They belonged to the family of villager Ghulam Mohammad and included three men, two women and a child, said Rahmatullah Hanafi, the head of Emergency Hospital where they were treated. All had shrapnel wounds. One women was in a critical condition.
Mohammad said eight members of his family, including children, were also killed in the attack, which he said went on for several hours.
“So far between 60 killed and wounded people have been recovered and there are people who are trapped under collapsed houses,” Mohammad told Reuters outside the hospital.
“It was a quiet evening and the bombardment began all of a sudden. Cattle have also been killed,” said another family member, Haji Saeed Mohammad.
“We can’t do anything, can’t stay in our villages and can’t go anywhere ... it is best for us to be killed all at once than being killed every day,” he added.
But the U.S. military gave a different version of events.
It said an Afghan army patrol, advised by members of the U.S.-led coalition force, was ambushed crossing a dry river bed 26 km (16 miles) south of the town of Musa Qala late on Saturday and fought off the attack with small arms fire and grenades.
As more Taliban insurgents arrived to reinforce the fight, the patrol “called in aircraft to destroy additional enemy fighters”, a U.S. military statement said.
“No bombs were dropped during the engagement,” it said. “Twelve enemy fighters were killed in the engagement ... There were no Afghan civilian injuries reported.”
The insurgents had been guarding a heroin laboratory, the U.S. military said. After destroying the lab, the patrol came under attack again and during the fighting the Taliban fired mortars into an area where there were civilians and wounded one.
Musa Qala was the scene of intense fighting last year between British troops and besieging Taliban insurgents.
British troops withdrew from the town in October last year in a deal with tribal elders who pledged to keep the Taliban out. But the deal broke down in February and Taliban forces moved in. Since then, the immediate area has remained largely quiet with few of the daily clashes seen elsewhere in Helmand.
But the U.S. military signalled Afghan and foreign forces who have steadily gained ground elsewhere in Helmand were starting to push towards Musa Qala.
“This operation is designed to strike into the heart of the insurgents’ safe haven,” coalition spokeswoman Captain Vanessa Bowman said in a statement. “We expect that as we manoeuvre deeper into this area, the Taliban will raise more and more inaccurate claims of non-combatant casualties,” she said.
Civilian casualties are a sensitive issue for President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Western troops under the command of NATO and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Already this year, more than 350 civilians have been killed in operations by Western troops in Afghanistan, according to aid groups and Afghan officials.