Taliban militants attacked southern Afghanistan police posts, triggering NATO airstrikes that killed 25 civilians, including three infants and the local mullah, a senior police officer said on Friday.
NATO said its overnight bombardment killed most of a group of 30 insurgents and blamed them for the deaths of any innocents, saying they had launched "irresponsible" attacks from civilian homes.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized the rising civilian toll from NATO and US-led military operations as "difficult for us to accept or understand".
The police posts came under fire late on Thursday in Helmand Province's Gereshk district, provincial Police Chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said.
NATO responded by calling in airstrikes, which killed 20 suspected militants - but also 25 civilians, including nine women, three babies and the mullah or religious teacher at the local mosque, Andiwal said.
Taliban used at least two civilian compounds for cover during the clashes, which lasted into early on Friday, Andiwal said.
"NATO was targeting the areas where the fire was coming from ... and two compounds were completely destroyed, and the families living in those compounds were killed," he said.
Villagers loaded the victims' bodies onto tractor trailers to take them to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to prove they were innocent victims, but police stopped them, Andiwal said.
NATO said the aircraft struck after insurgents attacked troops from its International Security Assistance Force 14 kms northeast of Gereshk town.
"A compound was assessed to have been occupied by up to 30 insurgent fighters, most of whom were killed in the engagement," an alliance statement said.
Lieutenant colonel Mike Smith, a NATO spokesman, expressed concern about the reports of civilian deaths. However, he claimed that - because insurgents had chosen the time and location for the attack - "the risk to civilians was probably deliberate".
"It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties," he said.
If confirmed, the casualties in Gereshk would bring the number of civilians killed in NATO or US-led military operations this year to 177, according to figures provided by Afghan officials and witness reports.
Aid groups and other observers warn that anger at the mounting civilian toll is undermining support for foreign troops' presence and setting back their goal of securing Karzai's Western-backed government against a Taliban comeback.
NATO acknowledged late on Thursday for the first time that civilians had died in a three-day battle that began last weekend in Chora district of Uruzgan Province.
Afghan officials have said that more than 100 people, including militants, civilians and police, were killed.
"Some may have been killed at the hands of the Taliban, some may have been caught in crossfire and some may have died in airstrikes against enemy positions," NATO spokesman Smith said.
Karzai's government has repeatedly protested NATO's frequent resorting to massive firepower, and has pleaded for closer coordination with Afghan officials to avoid civilian losses.
(China Daily via agencies June 23, 2007)