ASHOGHO, Afghanistan -- Air strikes from NATO helicopters hunting Taliban fighters ripped through three dried mud homes in southern Afghanistan as villagers slept early yesterday. At least nine civilians were killed, including women and children, said residents and the provincial governor.
Shellshocked, angry villagers in Ashogho condemned the attack, which set back NATO's hopes of winning local support for their tough counterinsurgency campaign. The air strikes came at about the same time a rocket struck a house in a village to the west, reportedly killing 13 people.
``I am not Taliban! We are not Taliban!" Gulab Shah shouted by the rubble of the ruined houses in Ashogho.
Kandahar provincial Governor Asadullah Khalid said it appeared that no Taliban fighters were in the village at the time of the air strikes, which left giant pieces of mud packed with straw scattered along Ashogho's narrow lane.
Bibi Farida, a 6-year-old whose red hair was matted with dirt, fidgeted and bit down on her scarf as she remembered the assault. Her voice was barely a whisper. ``I cried. I just cried."
The 2 a.m. raid in the Zhari district of Kandahar province was only half a mile from the scene of last month's Operation Medusa, one of the most ferocious battles between Western forces and insurgents since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that yesterday's operation in Kandahar was believed to have caused several civilian casualties. The alliance said the operation was meant to detain people involved in roadside bomb attacks in Panjwayi district, which borders Zhari.
NATO said it regretted any civilian casualties and that it makes every effort to minimize the risk of collateral damage.
Khalid, who traveled yesterday to Ashogho, about 15 miles west of Kandahar city, said nine people were killed, including women and children, and 11 wounded. Residents said 13 were killed, including four women, and 15 wounded. The governor stuck with his figures when contacted late yesterday.
Since late 2001, there have been numerous incidents of civilians killed in military operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, although US-led coalition and NATO forces say they go to extreme lengths to avoid civilian casualties. The international troops accuse insurgents of blending in with local populations while attacking foreign and Afghan soldiers. Many other civilians have been killed in Taliban attacks, including scores in recent suicide bombings.
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly demanded that NATO and US-led coalition forces take more care when conducting military operations in residential areas to avoid civilian casualties, which undermine his government's already weak standing in parts of the country.
Khalid said Karzai expressed his sympathy after he called the president on his cellphone from the village.
``He told them how he hurt for them and how sad he was for their loss," Khalid said.
One of the homes that was attacked had only one wall standing. A blast ripped a hole through the middle of another.
Shah gestured toward the destroyed homes:
``If the foreign soldiers were so smart that they knew there were Taliban here, why didn't they see the women and children who were sleeping? Why do they want to kill us? How can they help us rebuild if they want to kill us? Maybe they should leave," he shouted.