US-led air strikes killed dozens of Afghans, including women and children, the Red Cross said today, appearing to confirm an incident that could overshadow a meeting between US and Afghan leaders.
Rohul Amin, governor of Western Farah province where the bombing took place during a battle on Monday and Tuesday, said he feared 100 civilians had been killed. Provincial police chief Abdul Ghafar Watandar said the death toll could be even higher.
If confirmed, those even higher figures could make the incident the single deadliest for Afghan civilians since the campaign to topple the Taliban in 2001.
President Hamid Karzai, due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington later today for the first time since Obama took office, sent a joint US-Afghan delegation to investigate the incident, his office said.
"The president has termed the loss of civilians unjustifiable and unacceptable and will raise it with Obama," the presidential palace said in a statement.
Civilian casualties are a source of great strain between Washington and Kabul at a time of rising violence by Islamist Taliban insurgents and with US troop numbers due to be more than doubled by the end of the year.
Obama has declared Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan to be Washington's main military focus. Karzai, Obama and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari will discuss strategy for the region at the White House meeting later today.
Jessica Barry, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the Geneva-based group had also sent a team which reached the scene of the air strikes yesterday afternoon.
"There were women and there were children who were killed. It seemed they were trying to shelter in houses when they were hit," she said. The team saw houses destroyed and dozens of bodies, providing the first international confirmation of the incident.
Barry said that among those killed was a first aid volunteer for Afghanistan's Red Crescent, who died along with 13 members of his family. She said the team was not able to say whether there were any fighters among the dead.
US forces in Afghanistan acknowledge they were involved in fighting and air strikes in the province's Bala Boluk district, which began on Monday and continued into yesterday after Taliban militants seized a village and clashed with Afghan troops.
A US military spokesman said a US-Afghan investigation team had departed for the area this morning.
Watandar, the provincial police chief, said Taliban guerrillas had used the civilians as shields, herding them into houses in the villages of Geraani and Ganj Abad, that were then struck by US-led coalition warplanes.
"The fighting was going on in another village, but the Taliban escaped to these two villages, where they used people as human shields. The air strikes killed about 120 civilians and destroyed 17 houses," he said, adding the toll was imprecise.
Villagers trucked about 30 dead bodies to the provincial capital Farah City yesterday to prove that dozens had been killed in the strikes, said governor Amin.
"Taliban fighters fought Afghan and foreign troops yesterday and the day before but the casualties from last night's bombings were all civilians," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"The government and foreign troops must compensate the affected people, we don't want apologies any more," he said.
The mounting civilian casualty toll has become a deep source of friction between Karzai and his US backers.
Afghan and UN investigators say US strikes killed 90 civilians last August. Washington initially denied large numbers of civilians had been killed in that incident, only to acknowledge three months later at least 33 civilians had indeed been killed.
Since then, US and Nato forces in Afghanistan have established new drills they say are intended to reduce the number of civilian casualties. They say they now launch immediate investigations alongside Afghan authorities into all reports of civilian deaths and apologise more quickly than before.
The United States will increase its forces in Afghanistan from 32,000 at the start of this year to a projected 68,000 by year's end, with most of the reinforcements due in the next few months. Other Western countries have about 30,000 troops in the country under the command of a US general.