Afghanistan– NATO forces in Afghanistan were investigating on Friday whether civilians were among scores of people burned to death when they carried out an air strike against two hijacked fuel tankers.
NATO said it believed the dead were all Taliban fighters, but angry relatives in northern Kunduz province said villagers were collecting fuel from the hijacked trucks and caught in the blast.
If the civilian deaths are confirmed, the incident could reignite outrage against foreign troops two months after the new U.S. and NATO commander in the country announced measures to reduce civilian casualties undermining the war effort.
Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar said as many as 90 people were feared killed, burned alive in a giant fireball.
Lieutenant-Commander Christine Sidenstricker, press officer for the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said Afghan authorities had reported two fuel trucks hijacked. NATO aircraft spotted them on a river bank.
After observing that only insurgents were in the area, the local ISAF commander ordered air strikes which destroyed the fuel trucks and killed a large number of insurgents, she said.
The strike was against insurgents. That's who we believe was killed. But we are absolutely investigating reports of civilian deaths, she said.
Asked how pilots could know whether a crowd around the trucks included civilians, she said: Based on information available at the scene, the commanders believed they were insurgents.
The incident highlights the mounting insecurity in the north of the country, an area that had been seen as safe but where Taliban attacks have become increasingly frequent.
The Kunduz area is patrolled mainly by NATO's German contingent, barred by Berlin from operating in combat zones.
Under new orders issued in July by the ISAF commander, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, aircraft are not supposed to open fire unless they can confirm there is no chance civilians might be hurt or friendly forces are in immediate danger.
Provincial officials, who also could face a public backlash over civilian deaths, said both fighters and civilians were killed. Omar, the province's governor, said he believed half of those killed were militants, while provincial police chief Abdul Razzaq Yaqubi said a majority of the dead were fighters.
My brother was burned when the aircraft bombed the fuel tankers. I don't know whether he is dead or alive, said weeping villager Ghulam Yahya, one of dozens of relatives gathered outside Kunduz Central Hospital in the provincial capital.
Mohammad Sarwar, a tribal elder in the province, said Taliban fighters had hijacked the tankers and were offering fuel to a crowd of villagers when the tankers were bombed.
We blame both the Taliban and the government, he said.
DEAD TOO Burned FOR MORGUE
Mohammad Humayun Khamosh, a doctor at the Kunduz hospital, said 13 people with burns were brought there for treatment, but none of the dead had been taken to the hospital's morgue because the bodies were too badly burned.
It is very hard to collect dead bodies or remains from the blast because the fuel they were collecting was highly flammable, he said.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said fighters had captured the two fuel tankers. One had become stuck in mud by a village, and the fighters went to try to tow it when residents gathered to take the fuel and the crowd was struck.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made stabilizing Afghanistan a foreign policy priority although public support for the war has eroded as U.S. combat deaths have risen to record levels.
Obama has ordered 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan this year, continuing an escalation begun under outgoing President Goerge W. Bush. More than 103,000 Western troops are in Afghanistan, including 63,000 Americans.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled on Thursday that he would be open to sending additional troops, asserting the war was not slipping through the administration's fingers.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in KABUL; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Robert Birsel)