KANDAHAR, May 22: Up to 80 Taliban rebels and at least 16 civilians were killed on Monday during a coalition air and ground attack on a village in southern Afghanistan, officials and witnesses said. The US-led coalition said it called in warplanes after troops who were trying to capture insurgents in Kandahar province came under fire, while a governor said some of the militants had hidden in local people’s houses.

Bloodied men, women and children who streamed into a nearby hospital using vehicles that withstood the bombing said dozens of civilians died and scores more were wounded.

“Coalition forces conducted a significant operation early this morning in the Kandahar region near the village of Azizi that resulted in the unconfirmed deaths of possibly up to 80 Taliban members,” a coalition statement said.

There were 20 confirmed deaths among “active members of the Taliban network” and 60 unconfirmed fatalities in the operation, the third in the area in a week.

“The purpose of this morning’s operation was to detain individuals suspected of terrorist and anti-Afghanistan activities. However, during the operation, coalition forces encountered organised armed opposition,” it said.

“Ground and close air support assets engaged the extremists, who were firing on coalition troops and endangering innocent civilians,” the statement added.

The coalition said it was investigating reports of civilian deaths. Its troops “only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbour extremists,” the statement said.

Kandahar provincial governor Asadullah Khalid told reporters that at least 16 civilians were killed and 15 wounded in the attack.

“There were reports that the Taliban were in this village but when the US planes started bombardment the Taliban used the people’s houses as a front — that’s why there were civilian casualties,” Mr Khalid said at the main hospital in Kandahar city, 35 kilometres east of the bombed area.

An elderly man, Attah Mohammad, said at the hospital that 24 members of his family, including some children, were killed in the bombing.

“They started to bomb our village at midnight and continued up to this morning,” he said.

A doctor said security forces had not immediately allowed ambulances into the sealed-off area to fetch the wounded.

An 18-year-old with wounds to his face and chest said there had been Taliban in the village but they disappeared when the bombs started to fall.

“One hit my house. I was wounded and my two brothers were killed,” said the teenager named Azizullah.

Afghan and coalition forces said they had arrested a mid-level Taliban leader who was a rebel commander for Helmand, during an operation on Friday in Uruzgan. Mullah Mohibullah was responsible for a Taliban ambush on Friday that killed one US soldier and wounded several others, it said.

Three rockets were fired into Mihtarlam city in Laghman. In Kunduz, a homemade bomb struck a vehicle of Nato-led peacekeepers.—AFP

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