Nato forces kill 'up to 85' civilians in Afghan attack

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Nato forces in Afghanistan have killed scores of civilians in a single operation, bombing them in their own homes as they celebrated the end of Ramadan.

Nato commanders were facing serious questions yesterday as the Afghan government said it had confirmed that at least 40 civilians were killed in Nato bombing raids in Panjwayi district, near Kandahar.

Nato said its own initial investigation found that only 12 "non-combatants" were killed, but it had no explanation for the discrepancy with the government's figures. Local Afghan officials said they believed as many as 85 civilians died - which would make the incident the worst single atrocity committed by Western forces in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

What was clear was that something terrible happened at Panjwayi, a penniless place amid the barren dust of Kandahar province. Nato says its forces were fighting Taliban insurgents who had been attacking convoys in the area. According to Bismillah Afghanmal, a Kandahar provincial council member, Taliban fighters tried to take shelter in civilian houses - and Nato forces targeted the houses despite the fact civilians were still inside. Witnesses say 25 houses were razed in four to five hours of bombing.

The attack came as Afghans celebratedEid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. In 2002 a US air strike killed 46 civilians at a wedding party in Oruzgan.

As many as 70 Taliban insurgents were killed in the fighting at Panjwayi, according to Major Mark Knittig, a spokesman for Isaf, the Nato force in Afghanistan. "Very sadly, civilians continue to get caught up in these engagements with tragic results," he said, adding that Nato always used "precision strikes".

Nato said its initial investigation found that only 12 civilians died, but it had no explanation for the number of funerals that were taking place in the area yesterday. In Kandahar city, hundreds attended a mass funeral.

"Everyone is very angry at the government and the coalition. There was no Taliban," said Abdul Aye, a villager, as he wept. He said 22 of his extended family were killed. "These tragedies just keep continuing."

Another villager, Taj Mohammed, said 10 members of his family were killed. "The information was wrong," he said. "There were no militants. Innocent people have been killed."

Another 22 people were buried overnight in a mass grave at Mirwisa Mina, a village 10 miles from Kandahar, according to Habibullah Khan, a local politician.

Zmarai Bashiry, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry said police and local officials had confirmed 40 civilians died.

The UN's Afghanistan mission said it was "very concerned" at the reports. It said in a statement: "The safety and welfare of civilians must always come first and any civilian casualties are unacceptable, without exception."

Nato will co-operate with an inquiry by the Afghan Defence Ministry. But Mr Afghanmal, of the provincial council, said: "An investigation has no meaning. These kinds of things have happened several times, and they only say: 'Sorry'. How can you compensate people who have lost their sons and daughters? The government and the coalition told the families that there are no Taliban in the area anymore. If there are no Taliban, then why are they bombing the area?"

Nato claimed in September that it had successfully cleared the Panjwayi area of Taliban.