KABUL — Sobbing relatives showed U.S. and Afghan investigators the demolished buildings and graves in two western villages where a local official said Thursday he collected the names of 147 people killed in a disputed incident involving American forces and Taliban militants.
If local reports of the death toll are confirmed, it would be the deadliest case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.
Although the results of the joint U.S.-Afghan investigation were not expected to be announced until today, Afghans blamed U.S. bombing raids for the deaths in the villages of Ganjabad and Gerani. In the capital of Farah province, where the fighting took place, about 150 stone-throwing protesters chanted "Death to America" and clashed with police.
The large number of civilian deaths comes at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as it steps up its military campaign here while emphasizing the importance of nonmilitary efforts to stabilize the country.
President Barack Obama expressed sympathy over the loss of life in a White House meeting Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against the Taliban.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose two-day visit in Afghanistan was overshadowed by the case, offered a new expression of U.S. regret for the deaths but stopped short of taking blame. U.S. officials maintained that the Taliban might have been responsible for at least some of the deaths.
"We regret any, even one, innocent civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said Thursday during a visit to the war zone. "We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred."
There has been no official death count, either from the Americans or the Afghans, from the fighting in the Bala Buluk district Monday night and Tuesday.