KABUL, Afghanistan - US and Afghan forces attacked a remote village in a mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan following reports that an infamous insurgent leader was in the area, a governor said yesterday. At least 16 people were killed.
Governor Tamim Nuristani said Afghan soldiers told him Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was meeting with top deputy Kashmir Khan in the Dohabi district of Nuristan province on Sunday, sparking a fierce bombardment. The Defense Ministry said Hekmatyar wasn't the target but that fighters from his group, Hezb-i-Islami, had gathered in the village alongside Taliban militants.
Other provincial leaders said many civilians were killed in the hours-long clash, which included air strikes in the remote villages of Shok and Kendal. Nuristani said it was too early to know if any of the 16 killed were civilians. His casualty figures came from police who had reached the remote district, he said.
US officials and the Afghan Defense Ministry said no civilians were killed.
The conflicting accounts were impossible to reconcile because the fighting occurred in a remote and dangerous part of the country. US officials say that militants falsely stated civilian casualties as a strategy to weaken the international military coalition and the Afghan government.
In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, Taliban fighters attacked and killed seven police who were eradicating a field of opium poppies in rural Kandahar province, the police chief said. Five militants were also killed in the clash.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said the battle in Nuristan, a lawless region that borders Pakistan, targeted a terrorist center that included a suicide bomb cell. Casualty figures were unavailable.
Hekmatyar heads the militant group Hezb-i-Islami, which has links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, though Hekmatyar has denied direct ties with those groups. He briefly served as prime minister of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and is infamous for bombarding the capital, Kabul, during the country's civil war, killing an untold number of civilians.
Zahir Murad, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said the bombardment targeted fighters from Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban who were gathering to plan attacks. He said he had no information that Hekmatyar was present.
The chief of Nuristan's provincial council, Rahmatullah Rashid, said 19 people were killed in the battle and all were civilians. He said six children, five women, and eight men died. He said he didn't have a report of how many militants were killed.
US Marine 1st Lieutenant Richard Ulsh said coalition forces have "received no reports of civilian casualties at this time as a result of that conflict."