KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan have begun investigations into three U.S.-led airstrikes that Afghan officials say killed at least 78 civilians this month.
The investigations come during what U.N. and Afghan officials say is one of the deadliest years for civilians since the war began. In the first six months of this year, the number of civilians killed in fighting has increased by nearly 40 percent over the same period last year, according to U.N. data.
"We have seen a number of occurrences lately where a large number of civilians have been killed. It would be fair to say that this year so far there has been an increase in the number of civilians killed by all sides," said Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
More than half of those killed in the three recent U.S.-led airstrikes, which occurred within three weeks of each other in three separate provinces in eastern and western Afghanistan, were women and children, according to Afghan and Western officials. In one case, an estimated 47 women and children in a wedding party were killed.
NATO protocols require high-level approval for airstrikes when civilians are known to be in or near Taliban targets. Military officials say fighters with the insurgent group commonly take up positions in civilians' homes, mosques or even schools — increasing the chances of civilian casualties.
The airstrikes under investigation:
• July 4, Zoomia Bala village, eastern province of Nuristan. Two U.S. helicopters unleashed missiles and gunfire on a pair of vehicles fleeing an area near a NATO and Afghan military base shortly before an attack, according to a confidential cable by the European Union delegation in Kabul to its member states. At least 16 civilians were killed, according to Afghan media reports and interviews. Nuristan's governor, Tamim Nuristani, said at the time that 22 civilians were killed. He was fired by Karzai days after making the claim.
• July 6, eastern province of Nangahar. A Western official in Afghanistan familiar with details of the aerial assault, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing, said U.S. forces dropped bombs on a wedding party as it traveled through a wide, open area. At least 47 people were killed.
• Sunday, western province of Farah. At least eight Afghan police officers were killed in the district of Ana Darreh when a convoy of U.S. and Afghan soldiers mistakenly called in an airstrike on the officers' location, according to statement issued by U.S. military officials immediately after the attack.
On Thursday, fierce fighting broke out in southern Afghanistan when scores of Taliban insurgents attacked an Afghan army convoy on the main highway south of the capital. Afghan officials said that the Taliban were beaten back by soldiers and police officers and that 35 insurgents were killed, including several foreign fighters, and five were captured.