Red Cross officials are backing local reports that U.S.-led airstrikes in western Afghanistan earlier this week killed dozens of civilians. The U.S. military is sending investigators to the scene and President Hamid Karzai has pledged to take up the issue in meetings with President Obama.
Local Afghan officials say the incident occurred during a battle Monday and Tuesday in Farah province, when Afghan troops aided by U.S. soldiers were battling Taliban insurgents.
Local officials said bombing raids on the suspected Taliban positions killed as many as 100 civilians and residents are still digging through rubble looking for more bodies. A Red Cross team sent to the region backed up the claims of dozens of civilian deaths, including women and children.
A joint Afghan and U.S. military team has gone to investigate the site and interview residents, but officials said continued fighting in the region has delayed the mission.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Francis Ricciardone vowed to help the families of any civilians killed in the strikes, but said it is first important to try to establish what happened.
"The first reports are almost always wrong, one way or another," Ricciardone said. "We also know that the insurgents, the Taliban, exploit them and sometimes usually fabricate in very sophisticated ways. So I think we have to wait and see what the facts are."
In similar previous incidents, U.S. officials initially disputed Afghan claims of large numbers of civilian casualties. Later, the United Nations and Red Cross backed up the higher tallies.
Those incidents helped make the issue one of the most contentious in Afghanistan, and led top officials including President Karzai to urge international forces to exhibit more restraint. Mr. Karzai has said airstrikes and house raids are seriously undermining support for international troops in the country.
The United Nations estimated that in 2008, some 828 civilians were killed by coalition and Afghan security forces - a third higher than the year before. Most of those killed are believed to have died from aerial bombing. The U.N.'s highest estimated tally from a single incident has been 90 civilians killed in Azizabad village in western Afghanistan last year.
Military officials say the public outrage over the deaths has led the Taliban to adopt tactics that try to encourage pro-government forces to strike civilian targets. ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette says all foreign troops entering Afghanistan are trained to try to avoid such incidents, but they still occur.
"We fully realize that we want to bring down the casualties to zero," Blanchette said. "But with the behavior of the insurgents who are continuing to hide, to use human shields, it is a difficult task to separate the population from the cowardly behavior of the insurgents."
President Karzai's office released a statement saying he plans to raise the issue of civilian casualties during his first in-person meeting with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.