KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military acknowledged Saturday that 37 civilians were killed and 35 injured during fighting last week in Kandahar province between insurgents and coalition forces.
Although the U.S. statement stopped short of taking direct blame for civilian casualties in a southern province that is one of the country's most active battlefields, it represented an unusually swift public response to claims of mass casualties made by Afghan officials.
The finding came just three days after provincial officials and the Afghan president's office asserted that three dozen people had died in an errant U.S. airstrike on a wedding party in a village outside the city of Kandahar.
The city, the main population center in Afghanistan's south, was the one-time stronghold of the Taliban. Militants and coalition forces clash almost daily in the province, also known as Kandahar, which is a center of Afghanistan's drug trade.
The new commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, was in Afghanistan last week to look at ways to revamp military strategy in the wake of a dramatic resurgence by Taliban-led militants over the last two years. During his visit, Afghan defense officials told him that civilian casualties were sharply eroding public support for the presence of foreign forces.
The deaths and injuries of noncombatants also have become an extremely sensitive issue between the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai and Western forces in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, hours after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election, Karzai used a congratulatory news conference to plead with the president-elect for an end to civilian fatalities.
The inquiry into the deaths in Wach Baghtu village in Kandahar province was carried out jointly by Afghan government officials, the Afghan army and the U.S.-coalition, the U.S. said.