A joint U.S.-Afghan investigation has found that civilians were killed several days ago in airstrikes against Taliban forces. Officials are still trying to determine how many civilians were among the dead, but they said there are indications that Taliban fighters tried to encourage civilian deaths by forcing villagers into the battle zone.

Civilian casualties involving foreign troops in Afghanistan are the most contentious issue straining relations between the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces.

The latest incident occurred late Monday and early Tuesday in southern Farah province, when the governor called in pro-government troops to repel Taliban fighters who had been harassing locals and firing at police. A joint Afghan and U.S. patrol battled with the militants for several hours in two villages before calling for airstrikes. Hours later, local villagers and officials said the counterattack killed more than 100 civilians.

The U.S. military on Saturday conceded that some civilians were among the dead, but said their exact number remains unclear. Tech Sergeant Chuck Marsh says investigators believe some villagers may have been held against their will by Taliban fighters hoping to increase civilian casualties.

"The investigation suggests that villagers had taken refuge in a number of houses in each village," he said. "Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked ANSF and Coalition forces."

U.S. officials have said for months that Taliban fighters are acutely aware of the public anger that civilian casualties cause and actively seek to encourage such deaths to increase opposition to international troops and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.   Tech Sergeant Marsh says there are indications that the Taliban actively worked to publicize the deaths from the latest attack.

"Following the fighting, Afghan officials also confirmed the Taliban fighters loaded two trucks with bodies and forced elders to parade them through villages to incite outrage among villagers," he said.

The joint U.S. and Afghan investigation team said that after visiting three grave sites with multiple dead buried at each one, investigators were unable to determine which of those casualties were Taliban fighters and which were non-combatants. Investigators said all of those killed had been buried by the time they arrived.
A military statement describing the initial results of the investigation condemned Taliban militants for deliberately targeting Afghan civilians and using them as human shields. The statement said additional information will be released after the investigation has been completed.
While visiting Washington this past week, President Hamid Karzai repeatedly raised the issue of Afghan civilian casualties from foreign troops and called for a change in procedures to end such incidents. Mr. Karzai has said he wants Afghan troops to take the lead role in searching homes and have international troops focus on providing security for civilians.