Afghan Civilian Death Toll Disputed

U.S. officials disagree with Afghan officials about how many civilians were killed recently in airstrikes in western Afghanistan. Afghan officials say as many as 140 civilians were killed. U.S. military officials say that's not possible.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We've been following the American bombing of a remote village in Afghanistan, where the deaths of women and children has caused escalating tensions between the two countries. The Afghan government says as many as 140 civilians died. The U.S. military says that's not possible.

Brigadier General MIKE RYAN (U.S. Army): And I can tell you categorically that we absolutely refuse to accept that number.

MONTAGNE: That's Brigadier General Mike Ryan, who was the first American official to visit the scene after the battle. He says the actual number is far lower and could be as few as 22 civilians. American officials say they have new information about what happened that day. And joining us from Kabul to talk about these latest developments is NPR's Tom Bowman. Hello.

TOM BOWMAN: Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the fact that the numbers are so different. How can the number of civilian dead be that far off?

BOWMAN: Well, let's start with what happened. On May 4th, there were reports that three Afghan officials were executed. Afghan police responded and came under heavy Taliban fire. They called for the Afghan army, and then in turn, they called for U.S. Marines and Special Operations Forces. They came under a heavy Taliban fire as well and called in air strikes from F-18s and a B-1 bomber.

As far as the numbers go, General Ryan told us that - when he went out there, spoke with a local governor and also to villagers, the best estimate they had was about two dozen civilians killed. But NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spoke with survivors at a hospital, and they said the number was much, much higher. And President Karzai sent officials out to the village. But Renee, one of the problems here is that all the dead were buried very quickly, and also there were no forensics done here. So it's really difficult to tell exactly how they died.

MONTAGNE: And what new information do the Americans say they have now?

BOWMAN: We talked to an American official who just saw some video taken from the B-1 bomber, and he says it shows Taliban fighters running through the village and also looking for shelter, running into one or two of the houses. And he says the video also includes audio from U.S. soldiers on the ground talking with the pilots about the locations of the Taliban. And then it also shows bombs falling on those houses. And this is a key point, because this would contradict what the survivors say, that all the Taliban left the village prior to the bombs falling.

MONTAGNE: One of the things, of course, is that the Americans are not disputing that some civilians were killed. The question is the number - and that's pretty key here - and whether they were all killed in - by the bombing.

BOWMAN: No. We talked to General Ryan, who agrees that civilians did die, and this is what he had to say.

Brig. Gen. RYAN: Bombs were dropped, and people were killed. One with - Taliban were killed and, you know, I'm certain and we have admitted to killing some civilians there.

BOWMAN: Now there is an investigation ongoing. It may be complete in the next week or two. They may or may not come up with the numbers killed. But they also may include new restrictions on the use of airstrikes. But Americans here tell us that they don't plan on taking airstrikes off the table, even though President Karzai is pushing for that, saying you should not bomb villages. He's adamant about that point.

MONTAGNE: And President Karzai, he is heading to the attack site today.

BOWMAN: That's right. President Karzai is at the scene today. And he brought along with him the American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, a retired American general and the former top commander in Afghanistan. They were also told that the U.S. government plans on rebuilding the houses in this village and also giving some money to the families of those who were killed.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Bowman, speaking to us from Kabul.

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