Insurgents step up violence in Afghanistan

More than 20 people have been killed in fresh clashes in Afghanistan, and a human rights group reported yesterday that about 34 civilians died earlier this week in a US air strike on a southern village - double the official toll.

A Taliban ambush on a police patrol in the Ghazni province left 10 militants and one policeman dead, said the local police chief, Abdul Rahman Sarjang.Another 13 insurgents and two police died on Wednesday in a battle in the Helmand province's Sangin district, said the local administrator Ghulam Muhiddin.

Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the director of the Kandahar office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Afghans who had fled thevillage of Azizi during a strike this week by US warplanes told him that about 25 family members died in one home and that nine others perished in the village's religious school, or madrassa,.

The estimate of 34 deaths more than doubles the toll of civilians reported by the governor of Kandahar and President Hamid Karzai, who said that 16 people had died. The US-led coalition said its estimate of the number of civilian deaths was in line with the governor's.

Mr Karzai has called for an investigation into the air strike. The US military said Taliban militants were firing on coalition forces from inside villagers' homes, and that troops had the right to return fire in defence.

Mr Noorzai said he had not been able to visit Azizi to confirm the number of civilian deaths because security forces were not allowing anyone into the area.AP