KABUL (AP) – Video evidence recorded by fighter jets and the account of the ground commander suggest no more than 30 civilians were killed in a two-day battle in western Afghanistan this month, the U.S. military said Wednesday, a stark contrast with Afghan claims that 140 civilians died.

The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds.

The figures, which the Americans called preliminary, are far lower than the numbers villagers provided to an Afghan government commission days after the May 4-5 battle in the villages of Gerani and Ganjabad in Farah province.

The Afghan government has paid compensation to families who claimed relatives were killed; the U.S. contends the money could have acted as an incentive for families to inflate the numbers of victims. A list of 140 names provided by villagers includes at least 60 females and more than 90 people under age 18.

Julian said the exact number killed might never be known and U.S. investigators were still trying to determine what happened. U.S. investigators initially visited the area and said the number and size of the mass graves did not support the Afghan claims of 140 dead. No corpses were exhumed.

Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew’s conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.

U.S. officials initially suggested that Taliban grenades may have been responsible for at least some of the civilian deaths. But in later statements, the military placed the blame on Taliban militants who put civilians at risk by dashing into their homes.

The United States warns that as long as insurgents fight from civilian areas, there are likely to be civilian deaths.

On Tuesday, a NATO airstrike aimed at 25 insurgents killed eight Afghan civilians in the southern Helmand province, the alliance said in a statement.

The Taliban, however, carry out suicide bombings against civilian targets in some areas and use fear and intimidation to gain support.

According to the U.S. military, the battle in Farah province began a day after Taliban fighters entered the two villages, demanded money from civilians and killed three former government employees. An Afghan force rushed in, only to be ambushed by as many as 300 insurgents who killed two policemen.

The provincial governor asked for U.S. military help, and American ground troops joined the battle, the statement said.

Before the battle was over, three other Afghan policemen were killed and a U.S. Navy corpsman was wounded trying to rescue a wounded Afghan soldier trapped by Taliban fire.

The troops then called in F-18 fighter jet airstrikes to help rescue the soldier, the statement said.

“Following this, one B-1 (bomber) provided fires in coordination with the ground commander on buildings and a tree grove insurgents were firing from or massing in,” the statement said.

What happened next is a matter of dispute.

Video footage shows insurgents regrouping into houses that are then destroyed in airstrikes, Julian said.

He could not say whether civilians were inside the buildings as the bombs fell, which he described as isolated, small structures surrounded by poppy and wheat fields.

“There were these two large groups of insurgents running into these small rural farm buildings, where they were reorganizing. The intelligence information said these were definitely insurgents moving into these buildings and we destroyed them,” Julian said.

U.S. military aircraft hit eight buildings with 13 missiles, Julian said.

Based on the new evidence, the investigating team “estimates that 60-65 Taliban extremists were killed in these engagements, while at least 20-30 civilians may have been killed during the fighting,” the U.S. statement said.

“We regret the loss of any civilian life and express our condolences to the families who lost loved ones in this fighting with insurgents firing from and regrouping in villagers’ homes,” Julian said.

He said that because some 300 villagers were seen fleeing before the fighting, no more than 30 would likely have remained.

Villagers interviewed shortly after the battle said they had gathered children, women and elderly men in compounds near Gerani to keep them away from the fighting – and that those compounds too were hit by airstrikes.

The international Red Cross has said women and children were among dozens of dead its teams saw in the two villages where houses lay in ruin following the bombing. An Afghan Red Crescent volunteer and 13 members of his family were killed in an airstrike while sheltering in a house that was bombed, according to the Red Cross.

NATO-led troops, meanwhile, said eight Afghan civilians were killed in an airstrike by the military alliance in Helmand province on Tuesday.

The soldiers were attacked by 25 suspected insurgents south of the provincial capital, the alliance said in a statement.

“Their first option is always to try and extract themselves from that particular situation,” said British Navy Capt. Mike Durbin, a spokesman for the force.

“They found themselves unable to do that and as a result, totally unaware that there were any civilians in the area called for air support,” Durbin said.

Separately, Afghan troops killed 25 militants and recovered their bodies after a battle in Helmand’s Nad Ali district Tuesday, said Afghan Gen. Ghulam Muhiddin Ghori.

The U.S. military reported that a roadside bombing outside Kabul on Wednesday killed two Americans – a service member and a civilian working for the military. The vehicle was traveling from Kabul toward Bagram Air Field at the time.


Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.