Afghanistan, Sep 4 – A NATO air strike on Friday destroyed two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in Afghanistan, igniting a fireball that an Afghan official said killed about 90 people — mostly insurgents.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was investigating reports of civilian casualties but a German army statement, putting the death toll at 56, insisted that no non-combatants were killed.
"Some 90 people were killed in this incident and most of them are Taliban. It was an ISAF force air strike," Mahbubullah Sayedi, a spokesman for the Kunduz provincial government, told AFP.
"A small number of the casualties are local civilians, including a few children who had come to take free fuel," he added, declining to give any further details.
Baryalai Basharyar Parwani, the police chief for the area in northern Kunduz province, said more than 60 people were killed and wounded, as accounts emerged of horrific injuries.
Civilian casualties during Western military operations in Afghanistan are hugely sensitive and a major source of tension with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who is ahead in the vote count after fraud-tainted elections.
In Yaqubi village, hundreds of people gathered to bury 18 bodies, some of which were burnt so badly the faces were unrecognisable, an AFP reporter said.
"People went to get fuel. The Taliban were distributing free fuel. At this time they were bombed. Eighteen people were killed from our village," said Azizullah, 45, who like many Afghans goes by one name, at the funeral.
Wounded people with extensive burns crowded a hospital in Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name, which lies on a main supply line for the more than 100,000 foreign troops based in Afghanistan.
An AFP reporter said around eight were in terrible condition — the skin burnt black and peeling off to expose raw red muscle.
Others were so badly wounded, they were incapable of crying, with their incinerated clothes stuck to their flesh.
The German army, whose soldiers are based in Kunduz under NATO command, said the air strike killed 56 Taliban militants after they attacked an alliance supply convoy.
"There were no civilian casualties. There were no German casualties," an army statement said.
A German army spokesman told AFP: "We are fairly certain that they were all insurgents, but we are not 100 percent sure."
ISAF said two fuel trucks were stolen at about 10:00 pm Thursday (1730 GMT) and were spotted several hours later on the banks of the Kunduz river.
"After assessing that only insurgents were in the area, the local ISAF commander ordered an air strike which destroyed the fuel trucks and a large number of insurgents were killed and injured," a spokeswoman said.
"ISAF has received information that civilians were killed and injured in this attack. ISAF forces in conjunction with Afghan officials are conducting investigations," she added.
Around 200 to 250 villagers were believed to have gathered to help themselves from the tankers, said health ministry spokesman Farid Rahid in Kabul.
Witness Mohammad Daud, 32, said villagers rushed to one of the trucks when it got stuck in the river, to take free fuel at the Taliban’s invitation.
"There were 10 to 15 Taliban on top of the tanker. This was when they were bombed. Everyone around the fuel tanker died," he told AFP in hospital.
"Nobody was in one piece. Hands, legs and body parts were scattered everywhere. Those who were away from the fuel tanker were badly burnt."
The incident came four days after the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan submitted a review into the nearly eight-year war, calling for a revised strategy to defeat the Taliban and reverse the country’s "serious" situation.
General Stanley McChrystal’s predecessor, General David McKiernan, was removed after less than a year on the job after deeply controversial air strikes that killed dozens of civilians in western Afghanistan.