An independent Afghan rights group says most of those killed last week in a controversial NATO airstrike on two hijacked fuel trucks were "non-combatants."  The deadly attack is now the subject of a NATO investigation.

The NATO air strike took place Friday in the northern Kunduz Province.  The attack was directed at a group of Taliban insurgents who had seized two trucks carrying fuel for international forces.

As many as 90 people were reported killed in the air strike and initial reports from the local Afghan population described most of the victims as civilians.  The allegations prompted U.S commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to order a detailed investigation into the incident.

The NATO investigation has yet to be concluded, but a leading Afghan rights group says its findings reveal that most of those killed were civilians.

In a report issued Monday, the Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitors (ARM) says that up 70 civilians were killed in the Kunduz attack while the rest were armed militants.  The group's director, Ajmal Samadi, says that the report is based on some 15 interviews with villagers where the NATO strike occurred.  He says provincial authorities are trying to play down the significance of the civilian deaths in order to influence the NATO probe.

"General McChrystal and the NATO investigators should bear this fact in mind that regardless of the support to the Taliban, those killed were non-combatants and their killing was a violation of the tactical order General McChrystal issued a few while ago in order to prevent such incidents," Samadi said.

This is the first incident in which NATO forces have been blamed for the deaths of large numbers of civilians since General McChrystal took command of foreign forces in Afghanistan two months ago.  The U.S. commander made the prevention of civilian casualties and protection of Afghans the centerpiece of his new military strategy.

In an unprecedented televised appeal to the Afghan people after the Kunduz attack, General McChrystal said he took the loss of civilian life very seriously.

Samadi of the Afghan rights group says that Taliban insurgents are inflicting, as he puts it, systematic, deliberate and widespread harm to Afghan civilians. But he says that extensive losses and damage to non-combatants in aerial strikes by international forces have seriously undermined NATO's credibility among ordinary Afghans.

"Regardless of who is killing Afghan civilians, they will consider themselves as caught up among warring parties," Samadi said.  "They will consider that NATO is not different from the Taliban when it comes to protecting civilians unless NATO will prove to them that it is an honest broker here that it cares about their protection that it acknowledges mistakes that it compensates where possible and that it does everything to reduce the recurrence of similar incidents in future."

Critics say that a growing Taliban insurgency across Afghanistan combined with an increase of thousands of new foreign troops has intensified fighting in Afghanistan leading to more civilian casualties.