An official investigation has found that more than 90 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in coalition air strikes this week, the Afghan religious affairs minister said Sunday.
The Afghan and US-led coalition military forces involved in the anti-Taliban operation that called in the strikes Friday had also not coordinated their actions, Minister of Hajj and Islamic Affairs Nematullah Shahrani told AFP.
"We went to the area and found out that the bombardment was very heavy, lots of houses have been destroyed and more than 90 non-combatants including women, children and elders have died," the minister said.
"They have claimed that Taliban were there. They must prove it," the minister said. "So far it is not clear for us why the coalition conducted the air strikes," he said.
President Hamid Karzai appointed the minister to head an investigation into the incident in the western province of Herat after Afghan officials said high numbers of civilians were killed but the coalition said only 30 militants died.
Civilian casualties are an emotive issue for Afghans, many of whom feel foreign forces take too little care when launching air strikes. Support for the presence of international troops is waning and anti-U.S. demonstrations broke out on Saturday.
The issue has also led to a rift between the Afghan government and its Western backers, with Karzai saying recently that foreign air strikes have achieved nothing but the deaths of civilians.
"Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemns the uncoordinated air strike by coalition forces in Shindand district of Herat province which resulted in the death of at least 70 people including women and children," the president's office said in a statement.
The U.S. military claimed only armed fighters were killed in Friday's attack.
Nearly 700 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, 255 of them by Afghan government and international troops, the rest by Taliban fighters, the United Nations says.
Aircraft targeted a known Taliban commander in the district in the early hours of Friday after Afghan and coalition forces came under attack from fighters, the U.S. military said.
Thirty fighters, including a Taliban commander were killed in the strike and only two civilians had been wounded, it said.
The Interior Ministry said coalition forces bombarded the Azizabad area of Shindand district on Friday afternoon, killing 76 civilians, including nineteen women, seven men and the rest children under the age of 15.
"Only militants killed"
The U.S. military claimed it was aware of allegations of civilian casualties but said those killed were militants.
"All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives," the U.S. military said in a statement. "An investigation has been directed," it said.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said it was aware of conflicting reports of casualties in Shindand.
"It is imperative that we exercise caution before jumping to any conclusions. The issue of civilian casualties is so important that it is vital that we verify the facts of what has actually happened," said U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique.
"It is a matter of great concern that we are seeing reports of large numbers of civilian casualties. The first rule of any counter-insurgency operation is to do no harm," he said.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Shindand district on Saturday, shouting anti-U.S. slogans, after Afghan soldiers arrived in the area to bring aid to the victim's families, a village elder told Reuters.
Afghan soldiers fired shots into the air and wounded six people after the crowd threw stones.
"We will continue our demonstration till the international community listen to us and bring those who carried out yesterday's attack to justice," said Shah Nawaz.
The demonstrators also shouted anti-U.S. slogans, saying Americans should withdraw from the area.