95 kids died in US-Taliban clash

KABUL: Ninety-five Afghan children are among the 140 people said to have died in a recent U.S.-Taliban battle in western Afghanistan, a lawmaker involved in the investigation into the deaths said Wednesday. The U.S. military disputed the claim.

Afghans blame U.S. airstrikes for the deaths and destruction in two villages in Farah province. American officials say the Taliban kept villagers hostage during the fight and a spokesman said payments to the bereaved offered incentive to exaggerate.

The list, which also includes 65 women and girls, was based on the testimony of family members of the victims, said Obaidullah Helali, a lawmaker from Farah and a member of the government's investigative team. The bodies were buried before an investigation took place, and there are no plans to dig them up.

If the Afghan toll is correct, it would be the largest case of civilian deaths since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Greg Julian said "there is no physical proof that can substantiate" the Afghan list of victims. The U.S. has refused to release a number of people it thinks died in the May 4-5 clash in Farah's Bala Baluk district.

Julian said militants are to blame for the deaths because they kept civilians hostage during the fight in the villages of Gerani and Ganjabad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also has said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in the two villages, but it did not provide an overall figure.

President Hamid Karzai has said the strikes were "not acceptable" and estimated that 125 to 130 civilians died.

Afghan members of the delegation investigating the clash delivered condolence payments to victims' families Tuesday, Helali said. The payments — $2,000 for the dead and $1,000 for the wounded — were ordered by Karzai, he said.

The list of the dead has not yet been made public, but the fact that payments are already being made suggests officials consider the investigation complete.

Julian said those payments offered incentive for villagers to report high numbers.

"It's very difficult to determine an exact number and there's a climate that encourages exaggeration," Julian said.

He said the investigation team was taken to three different grave sites, one with four graves, one with 22 graves and one mass grave which contained an unknown number of bodies.

"The locals couldn't decide among themselves whether it was 19 or 69 in that mass grave," Julian said.

"I can sit down and give you a list of names too, given some time, but the physical evidence doesn't compare," he added.

Karzai has long pleaded with the U.S. to minimize civilian deaths during its operations. Past incidents have drawn immediate outcries from the government, which contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against the Taliban.

The disputed incident comes as the Obama administration is gearing up to roll out a new strategy for the region, which involves linking success in Afghanistan with security in neighboring Pakistan, where Taliban militants are active along the border.

The U.S. has also pledged long-term nonmilitary efforts here — for example, civilian expertise in farming and other specialties — along with an increase of 21,000 U.S. troops.

In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, a suicide car bomber killed seven people and wounded 21 Wednesday outside a U.S. military base in the same part of eastern Afghanistan where militants stormed government buildings a day earlier, police said.

The militant attacks in Khost, a city within sight of the tumultuous border with Pakistan, comes as the U.S. makes leadership changes in Afghanistan that demonstrate a clear break with officials appointed by former President George W. Bush.

A vehicle drove up to the first gate outside Camp Salerno, on the edge of Khost city, early Wednesday morning and exploded, said Wazir Pacha, a police spokesman for Khost province. Seven people were killed and 21 others were wounded, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

U.S. forces confirmed the attack, saying four Afghan security guards were killed in the blast and 12 wounded.

There were no casualties among international troops, said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

On Tuesday, 11 Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings in Khost city, sparking running gunbattles with U.S. and Afghan forces that killed 20 people and wounded three Americans.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that 30 suicide bombers had attacked the government buildings.

Teams of Taliban militants have launched multipronged assaults on government centers in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand's capital in the last year, demonstrating an increasing sophistication in their attacks. Military analysts say such attacks are a result of training by Pakistani militants and al-Qaida fighters.

In another example of multidirectional attacks, militants fired several rockets at two other U.S. military bases in eastern Paktika province early Tuesday, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Six militants were killed when U.S. troops used artillery and airstrikes to fire back, the statement said. It said two people not involved in the fight were also killed and four others were wounded.

"We are investigating these actions to determine what happened in Paktika," said Col. Greg Julian, spokesman for the U.S. forces. "We take the safety of Afghan civilians very seriously and sincerely regret this loss of life."

President Barack Obama has taken charge of the increasingly bloody eight-year war this week, replacing the general in charge of the effort and installing a new ambassador.

The Obama administration hopes the leadership shakeup will help reverse the militants' momentum. Taliban and other insurgent fighters have increased their attacks the last three years and now control wide swaths of territory.

Obama is also adding troops — more than 21,000 additional U.S. forces are already starting to arrive — to confront the Taliban more forcefully. A record 38,000 U.S. troops are already in the country.