Most air strike victims were Taliban, says US

The US military in Afghanistan is mounting a fierce rearguard action to justify its air strikes on villages in which it claims most of the dead were Taliban fighters, contradicting the Afghan government which says most of those killed were women and children.

The growing number of civilians dying as a result of US and Nato bombing is provoking an angry reaction among Afghans and furious protests by the Afghan government against the use of allied airpower against villages. A further eight civilians were killed by air strikes this week according to a statement by the international forces in Afghanistan.

The US military has produced its first detailed account of what happened on 4 May when US aircraft attacked three villages in the Bala Buluk district of Farah province in western Afghanistan. It admits that 20-35 civilians were killed, but claims that 60-65 of the dead were "Taliban extremists". The Afghan government account, based on interviews with surviving family members, is that 93 children, 25 adult women and 22 adult men died.

The story told by the US military spokesman Colonel Greg Julian in Kabul yesterday is specific about its conclusion that most of the dead were Taliban fighters though vague about evidence for this. Colonel Julian said that video cameras on board a B1 bomber showed two groups of people, each numbering about 30, fleeing fighting and taking refuge in houses which were then destroyed by heavy bombs.

Colonel Julian said that the 60 people moving into the houses could not be identified from the video film footage, but "other information which I could release" proved they were members of the Taliban. "These guys are running from the battle area," said Colonel Julian. "The ground commander is talking to the aircraft commander and confirming that these guys are insurgents from the battle area and regrouping." He added that the buildings were so heavily bombed that "there's not going to be much to bury."

Few Afghans are likely to accept the US military explanation of events. Earlier the new US ambassador to Afghanistan General Karl W. Eikenberry was quoted as saying that he doubted the wisdom of dropping 2,000 pound bombs on houses when it was not known who was inside and coalition forces would change their tactics in order to prevent civilian casualties.

Gen Eikenberry's admission that the US did not know who was inside the houses that were demolished contradicts the official story that they were Taliban fleeing a battle. The US military assertion that most of the dead were Taliban appears to rely on the word of the US ground commander who called the strikes in.