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US denies 147 Afghan civilians killed

The US military says reports that as many as 147 civilians died in fighting involving American forces and the Taliban are "extremely over-exaggerated" and investigators were still analyzing the data collected at the site.

In the south, meanwhile, four NATO soldiers and 21 civilians died in a string of insurgent attacks, and an unmanned US drone crashed in central Ghazni province.

Officials said preliminary findings of the joint US-Afghan investigation into the deaths in the villages of Ganjabad and Gerani in the western Farah province could be released as early as Friday, but they have yet to schedule an announcement.

Reports of the large number of civilian deaths come at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as the US steps up its military campaign here while emphasizing the importance of nonmilitary efforts to stabilize the country.

A local official said that he collected from residents the names of 147 people killed during fighting on Monday night and Tuesday. If true, it would be the deadliest case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.

But the US military described that toll from the fighting as over the top.

"The investigators and the folks on the ground think that those numbers are extremely over-exaggerated," US military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said. "We are definitely nowhere near those estimates."

Mathias said she could not yet provide estimates of how many people were killed as the team has yet to produce its findings.

Afghan residents say the destruction was from aerial bombing. US officials have suggested that at least some of the deaths were caused by insurgents, whom the military accuses of using civilians as human shields when fighting with its forces.

In a video obtained Friday by Associated Press Television News, villagers are seen wrapping the mangled bodies of some of the victims in blankets and cloths and lining them up on the dusty ground.

In one shot, two children are lifted from a blanket with another adult already in it. The children's faces are blackened, and parts of their tunics are soaked in what appears to be coagulated blood.

Their limp bodies are then put on the ground, wrapped in another cloth and put next to the other bodies. It was not clear how many bodies were in the room where the video was shot.

The man who shot the video said many of the bodies he filmed in the village of Gerani on Tuesday were in pieces. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from security agencies.

It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the video.

Investigators on Thursday visited the scene of the violence, where sobbing relatives showed them graves and the demolished buildings where they said the victims had sheltered.

"The joint investigators are back and they are all discussing what they found," Mathias said. "We are still corroborating."

President Barack Obama expressed sympathy over the loss of life in a White House meeting Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against resurgent Taliban militants.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose two-day visit in Afghanistan was overshadowed by the case, offered a new expression of US regret for the deaths but stopped short of taking blame.

"We regret any, even one, innocent civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said Thursday during a visit to the war zone. "We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred."

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council who said he helped the joint delegation from Kabul with their examination Thursday, said he collected names of 147 dead — 55 at one site and 92 at another. Khan said he gave his tally to the Kabul team.

He said villagers told investigators that many of the dead were buried in mass graves of 20 or so people. Investigators did not exhume the bodies, according to Khan.

"They were pointing to graves and saying, 'This is my son, this is my daughter,"' Khan said.

Villagers said they gathered children, women and elderly men in several compounds near the village of Gerani to keep them away from the fighting, but that the compounds were hit by airstrikes. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in two villages.

But what happened remained a matter of dispute.

Three US defense officials, speaking anonymously, said Thursday that it is possible the investigators would find a mix of causes for the deaths — that some were caused by the firefight between the Americans and the Taliban, some by the US airstrike and some deliberately killed by Taliban fighters hoping US bombings would be blamed.

In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, Nato said four of its soldiers died in a series of clashes and bombings.

Two of the alliance's soldiers died in a suicide attack in the southern Helmand province Thursday, Nato said in a statement. The blast also killed 21 civilians and wounded 23 others, said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand's governor.

Initially, only 12 people were reported killed in the attack.

Separately, a Nato soldier was killed in a roadside bomb, also in southern Afghanistan, where another British soldier died from a gunshot wound Thursday.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency. Obama has ordered thousands of new troops to join the fight there and reverse the Taliban gains.

Today, a US Air Force Predator drone went down in central Ghazni province's Qarabagh district, Mathias said. She ruled out insurgent activity in the area of the crash.

However, Zabiullah Mujaheed, a Taliban spokesman, said they had shot the drone down. It was impossible to verify the claim.