KABUL, Afghanistan — A fierce new dispute erupted Saturday over civilian deaths in Afghanistan, with village elders asserting that 22 noncombatants were killed in an American-led raid and U.S. military officials insisting that all 15 dead, including a woman, were Taliban fighters.
The U.S. military said it would carry out a joint investigation with Afghan authorities beginning today.
Civilian casualties are one of the most serious points of friction between Western forces and the increasingly unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai.
The Afghan leader repeatedly has accused coalition troops of failing to safeguard civilians during combat operations, while commanders accuse the Taliban of deliberately putting innocents in harm's way. Karzai's latest public plea for restraint by Western forces came hours before President Obama was sworn in Tuesday.
Like many such disputed incidents, this latest one took place in the dead of night in a remote location, and involved the use of air power by American-led troops.
Saturday's raid took place between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the Mehtar Lam district of Laghman province, about 40 miles northeast of Kabul. American and other coalition troops have focused their efforts lately on securing several provinces adjoining Kabul, after a series of attacks close to the city last year left many Afghans with the sense that insurgents were tightening a noose around the capital.
A statement by the U.S. military said the early morning strike targeted a Taliban commander "known to traffic foreign fighters and weapons into the region." As coalition troops approached his compound, the statement said, they came under fire from "multiple directions" by militants armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
"They were running around with weapons, firing at our people," said Army Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. forces.
Village elders provided a different account to provincial officials, saying there were no Taliban in the area, which they said was a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds. Women and children were among the 22 civilian dead, they said, according to Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council.