KABUL, Afghanistan — A fierce battle between a joint U.S.-Afghan force and Taliban militants in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan left nearly 20 people dead, including 11 Afghan children killed in an airstrike, the government said Sunday.
The strike late Saturday in the Shigal district of Kunar province near Pakistan was called by NATO coalition forces after they and their Afghan counterparts came under an attack that killed an American adviser and badly wounded four Afghan soldiers, officials said. The American death was reported on Saturday. Details of the civilian casualties surfaced Sunday.
The U.S.-led coalition confirmed that it launched airstrikes in Kunar province where the deaths occurred, stressing that they were requested by international forces. The coalition said it was assessing the incident, but could not confirm that civilians were killed.
The battle unfolded on Saturday, the same day that a total of six Americans, including three U.S. soldiers, died in violent attacks. In addition to the U.S. adviser killed during the operation in the east, two others — a female foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department and an employee with the U.S. Defense Department — died in a suicide bombing in southern Zabul province during a trip to donate books to Afghan students.
The deaths capped one of the bloodiest weeks of the nearly 12-year-old war. On Wednesday, insurgents ambushed a courthouse in the relatively safe west, killing more than 46 people.
The death of Afghan civilians caught in the cross fire has been a major point of contention between international forces and the Afghan government. This year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned his troops from requesting coalition airstrikes.
In the latest incident, Associated Press photos showed villagers gathered for the funerals of the children whose bodies were swaddled in blankets. A garland of flowers adorned the head of a baby.
Afghan officials said the airstrike occurred after a joint U.S.-Afghan force faced hours of heavy gunfire from militants. The joint force was conducting an operation targeting a senior Taliban leader that began around midnight Friday in Kunar province's Shigal district, according to tribal elder Gul Pasha, who also is the chief of the local council.
The remote area is one of the main points of entry for Taliban and other insurgents trying to move across the mountainous border from neighboring Pakistan, where they enjoy refuge in the lawless northwestern area.
"In the morning after sunrise, planes appeared in the sky and airstrikes started," Pasha said in a telephone interview, adding that the fighting didn't end until the evening. "I don't think that they knew that all these children and women were in the house because they were under attack from the house and they were shooting at the house."
There were slightly differing accounts of the death toll.
Pasha said the main Taliban suspect was in the house that was hit and was killed along with a woman and the children, ages 1 to 12, who were members of the suspect's family.
Provincial government spokesman Wasifullah Wasify said 10 children and one woman were killed, and five women, who also were in the house, were wounded.
Karzai's office later said 11 people were killed — all of them children — and six women were wounded.
"While the president strongly condemns the Taliban act of using people and their houses as shields, he also strongly condemns any operation on populated areas that results in civilian casualties," his office said in a statement.
An airstrike in the same district in Kunar that killed 10 civilians in mid February prompted Karzai to ban his forces from requesting airstrikes.
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said six Taliban militants were killed in the operation on Saturday, including two senior commanders identified as Ali Khan and Gul Raof, the main planner and organizer of attacks in the area.
The U.S.-led coalition said it provided fire support from the air, killing several insurgents.
"The air support was called in by coalition forces, not Afghan security forces, and was used to engage insurgent forces in areas away from structures, according to our reporting," coalition spokesman Maj. Adam Wojack said in a statement.
He said the coalition takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and was currently assessing the incident.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.