A U.S. jet blasted two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, setting off a huge fireball Friday that killed up to 90 people, including dozens of civilians who had rushed to the scene to collect fuel, Afghan officials said.
The airstrike is likely to intensify concern over civilian casualties in the Afghan war. Top NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has ordered curbs on airstrikes after a strong backlash among Afghans over civilians killed in military operations.
In Kabul, the NATO command said a "large number of insurgents" were killed or injured in the pre-dawn attack near the village of Omar Khel in Kunduz province. In Brussels, the alliance's chief said it was possible civilians died.
Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Omar said 90 people were killed. A senior Afghan police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said that included about 40 civilians who were siphoning fuel from the trucks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he was creating a panel to investigate the attack. "Targeting civilians is unacceptable for us," he said.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a public affairs officer, said the attack occurred after commanders in the area determined that there were no civilians there.
In Brussels, however, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said "a number" of Taliban fighters were killed and "there is a possibility of civilian casualties as well."
The German military, which has troops under NATO command in Kunduz, said the airstrike struck the tankers at 2:30 a.m., killing 50 insurgents, adding that "uninvolved (persons) were presumably not harmed."
Militants seized the tankers about four miles (seven kilometers) southwest of a German base and an unmanned surveillance aircraft was dispatched to the scene, German officials said. After the images showed no sign of civilians, the Germans called for a U.S. airstrike, which occurred about 40 minutes after the tankers were seized.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the trucks were headed from Tajikistan to supply NATO forces in Kabul.
Mujahid said that when the hijackers tried to drive the trucks across the Kunduz River, the vehicles became stuck in the mud and the insurgents opened valves to release fuel and lighten the loads.
He said villagers swarmed the trucks to collect the fuel despite warnings that they might be hit with an airstrike.
Mujahid said no Taliban died in the attack.
Abdul Moman Omar Khel, member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village where the airstrike happened, said about 500 people from surrounding villages swarmed the trucks before the attack.
He said villagers told him insurgents had invited them to help themselves to the fuel.
"The Taliban called to the villagers 'Come take free fuel,'" he said, and the prospect of free fuel must have been irresistible. "The people are so hungry and poor."
He said five people were killed from a single family, and a man he knows named Haji Gul Bhuddin lost three sons.
Gov. Omar said a local Taliban commander and four Chechen fighters were among those killed.
Humanyun Khmosh, director of the Kunduz hospital, said 12 people were being treated for severe burns. He could not say whether they were civilians or insurgents, although one was a 10-year-old boy.
Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. Later, Afghans began burying some of those killed in a mass grave.
Violence has soared across much of the country since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, shifting the focus of the U.S.-led war on Islamic extremism from Iraq.
Fifty-one U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in August, making it the bloodiest month for American forces there since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Rising casualties during this summer's fighting have undermined support for the war in the U.S., Britain and other allied countries.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled for the first time he may be willing to send more troops after months of publicly resisting a significant increase.
At the same time, civilian deaths have become a hot-button issue among Afghans, many of who accused NATO of excessive force. Mindful of the potential backlash, international officials were quick to call for a thorough investigation.
Last May, U.S. warplanes struck military targets in the western Farah province, killing an estimated 60-65 insurgents. The U.S. said 20-30 civilians also died in those attacks. The Afghan government said 140 civilians were killed.
In Kabul, the deputy chief of the U.N. mission, Peter Galbraith, said Friday he was "very concerned" by reports of civilian casualties in Kunduz.
"Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an air strike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present," he said, adding that a U.N. team would be sent to Kunduz to investigate.
Also Friday, a French soldier was killed and nine others injured when their vehicles were hit by a bomb near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. The death brings the total number of French soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 20.
Spanish authorities said Spanish troops in western Afghanistan killed 13 insurgents and wounded three in a five-hour battle Thursday. There were no Spanish casualties.
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