Battle kills 20 militants, several civilians

>KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – NATO and Afghan troops called in airstrikes during a battle against insurgents in central Afghanistan, killing 20 suspected militants and several civilians, officials said Tuesday.

In a separate clash in eastern Afghanistan, a NATO soldier was killed and two others were wounded Tuesday during a firefight with insurgents in Kunar province, NATO said.

In the central Afghanistan clash on Monday, NATO said 50 insurgents were trying to set up an ambush and fighter aircraft dropped two bombs on their position. The casualty figures varied widely.

Maj. Zalmay Khan, an Afghan army commander, said 20 enemy fighters died in the joint NATO-Afghan operation in a remote area of Wardak province. Khan said militants were firing at Afghan and NATO forces from the cover of civilian homes.

NATO spokesman Maj. Charles Anthony said soldiers had been on the ground to guide the bombs to their targets. He said NATO forces had “no evidence” the bombs hit a housing compound.

NATO said it killed “numerous” enemy fighters.

Afghan officials said between three and 12 civilians were killed in the fighting just west of the capital, Kabul.

A governor’s aide, Mohammad Sadiq, said 12 fighters and three civilians were killed.

Anthony said NATO was still investigating whether any civilians were killed.

“We’ve been looking since yesterday,” Anthony said. “We still have not gotten any evidence of any civilian casualties. I’m not saying it’s not possible.”

Mohammad Hussein Fahami, the deputy head of the Wardak provincial council, said 12 civilians were killed – eight people from one family and four others. Ten civilians were wounded, he said.

Afghanistan this year has seen the heaviest fighting since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. In all, more than 5,200 people have died in insurgency related violence, according to an Associated Press count.

Some 700 civilians have died in fighting this year, according to the AP count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. About half of those deaths were caused by U.S. and NATO forces.

Casualty figures from remote battles often vary widely in Afghanistan and are hard to independently verify. U.S. and NATO officials say insurgents commonly force villagers to claim civilians casualties when none happened and that sometimes villagers falsely claim deaths in order to receive monetary compensation.