A fierce battle between US-backed Afghan forces and Taliban militants in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan left nearly 20 people dead, including 11 Afghan children killed in an airstrike and an American civilian adviser.
The fighting on Saturday was indicative of a surge in hostilities as Afghanistan's spring fighting season gets under way. This year's will be closely watched because Afghan forces are having to contend with less support from the international military coalition, making it a test case of their ability to take on the country's resilient insurgency.
The US-led coalition confirmed that it launched airstrikes in Kunar province where the deaths occurred, stressing that they were requested by international forces. The coalition said it was assessing the incident, but could not confirm that civilians were killed.
The battle unfolded on Saturday, the same day six Americans, including three US soldiers, died in violent attacks. In addition to the US adviser killed during the operation in the east, two others - a female foreign service officer with the US state department and an employee with the US defence department - died in a suicide bombing in southern Zabul province during a trip to donate books to Afghan students. The deaths capped one of the bloodiest weeks of the nearly 12-year-old war. On Wednesday, insurgents ambushed a courthouse in the relatively safe west, killing more than 46 people.
The death of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire has been a major point of contention between international forces and the Afghan government. Earlier this year, Afghan president Hamid Karzai banned his troops from requesting coalition airstrikes. In the latest incident, photos showed villagers gathered for the funerals of the children whose bodies were swaddled in blankets. A garland of flowers adorned the head of a dead baby.
Afghan officials said the airstrike occurred after a joint US-Afghan force faced hours of heavy gunfire from militants. The joint force was conducting an operation targeting a senior Taliban leader in the Shultan area of Kunar's Shigal district, according to tribal elder Gul Pasha, who is also the chief of the local council. The remote area is one of the main points of entry for Taliban and other insurgents trying to move across the mountainous border from neighbouring Pakistan, where they enjoy refuge in the lawless north-western area.
"In the morning after sunrise, planes appeared in the sky and airstrikes started," Mr Pasha said, adding that the fighting did not end until the evening. "I don't think that they knew that all these children and women were in the house because they were under attack from the house and they were shooting at the house," he said.
There were slightly differing accounts of the death toll. Mr Pasha said the main Taliban suspect was in the house that was hit and was killed along with a woman and the children, ages one to 12, who were members of the suspect's family. Provincial government spokesman Wasifullah Wasify said 10 children and one woman were killed and five women, who were also in the house, were wounded.
Mr Karzai's office later said 11 people were killed - all of them children - and six women were wounded. "While the president strongly condemns the Taliban act of using people and their houses as shields, he also strongly condemns any operation on populated areas that results in civilian casualties," his office said in a statement. An airstrike in the same district in Kunar that killed 10 civilians in mid-February prompted the president to ban his forces from requesting airstrikes.
Afghanistan's interior ministry said six Taliban militants were killed in the operation in Sano Dara Sheltan village, including two senior commanders identified as Ali Khan and Gul Raof, the main planner and organiser of attacks in the area. The US-led coalition said it provided fire support from the air, killing several insurgents. "The air support was called in by coalition forces, not Afghan security forces, and was used to engage insurgent forces in areas away from structures, according to our reporting," coalition spokesman Major Adam Wojack said. He said the coalition takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and was currently assessing the incident.