Official: Dozens dead in U.S. airstrikes

Villagers pray at a mass grave this week after an airstrike in  Afghanistan's Farah Province.
Up to 50 people were killed Tuesday in U.S. airstrikes on buildings in an Afghan area frequented by insurgents, a senior U.S. military official told CNN on Friday.

The official, who has direct knowledge of the probe into the strike, said investigators believe among those who died were women, children and insurgents, who the United States believes were using the other two groups as shields. One mass grave has been found, the official added. U.S. warplanes dropped about 13 bombs, including 500-pound and 1,000-pound bombs, on eight buildings in Farah province in western Afghanistan, the official said. The buildings were located in poppy and wheat fields, and Afghan and coalition forces were taking fire from those buildings, the official said. The military has been trying to destroy poppy fields, which are the source of most of the world’s opium, to cut off funding to the Taliban and other insurgents. The United States may never get a confirmed number of civilian dead because of the Islamic practice of quick burial. But since the airstrike, Afghan officials have been saying dozens of civilians were killed. There have been repeated instances of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes, and the issue is becoming increasingly sensitive politically for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The probe is a joint effort by U.S. and Afghan investigators.

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The question now for investigators, another senior U.S. military official said Tuesday, is how much information was available at the time of the strikes about the potential presence of civilians and whether those in charge should have known civilians might be in the vicinity. In the past, the U.S. military has paid compensation to victims’ families and leveled heavy public criticism against the Taliban for holding civilians at risk in conflict zones. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in Afghanistan on Thursday, expressed regret over the deaths. “We regret any, even one, Afghan … innocent civilian casualty. And we will make whatever amends are necessary,” Gates said. “We all know that the Taliban use civilian casualties and sometimes create them to create problems for … the United States and our coalition partners. We will have to wait and see what happened in this particular case.”