The coalition confirmed it carried out an operation that included air strikes in the western province of Herat but said 30 Taliban rebels were killed only and said it knew of no civilian deaths.
The Afghan defence ministry meanwhile gave yet another toll -- five civilians and 25 rebels dead. It was impossible to independently verify what happened in volatile Shindand district, but the conflicting reports highlight the difficulty in establishing facts in the mounting clashes between troops and rebels.
"Seventy-six people, all civilians and most of them women and children, were martyred during the operation by coalition forces in Shindand district of Herat province," the ministry said in a statement. The dead were "19 women, seven men and the rest children all under 15 years of age," it said.
"The interior ministry, while expressing its profound regret because of this incident which happened by accident, has sent a delegation of 10 people to the area and more details will be announced once the investigation is completed," the statement said. If the death toll is confirmed it would be one of the highest for civilians in the battle to fight the extremist Taliban, who were ousted during a US-led invasion in 2001.
The ministry said an unknown number of civilians were also wounded, with some of them in a critical condition. The police chief for western Afghanistan, Akramuddin Yawer, had also said 76 people were killed in the incident and 15 houses were destroyed in strikes. "Taliban are included but their number is unknown," he said.
But the coalition said 30 insurgents were killed in clashes and air strikes that followed an ambush on Afghan National Army (ANA) and coalition troops as they were going to arrest a Taliban commander. "The ANA and coalition forces killed 30 insurgents," it said, adding a "known" Taliban commander was among the dead. Two civilians were wounded. "No other civilian or friendly casualties were reported," the coalition said.
Asked about the ministry statement, US First Lieutenant Nathan Perry told AFP: "I definitely do not have any reports of a large amount of civilian casualties -- and we don't have any reports of civilian casualties at all." In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman could not account for the Afghan interior ministry claims, saying "the coalition remains confident in our reports that were released earlier today."
The Afghan army said five civilians -- three women and two children -- had died. "Planes bombed the area and in the result 25 Taliban were killed including two famous commanders," defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP separately. "Unfortunately, five civilians were killed and one woman and a boy were wounded."
Military operations and rebel attacks have increased in the summer with a Taliban-led insurgency growing steadily despite the efforts of nearly 70,000 international troops.
It has been a particularly bloody week for international troops with 10 French soldiers killed Monday in the deadliest ground fighting for the foreign forces since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban that brought international troops to the country.
Eight foreign soldiers including three Poles and three Canadians died in various incidents on Wednesday, most of them in bomb strikes. Another was killed in a bomb blast in eastern Afghanistan Friday, the coalition said in a statement that gave few details. Most soldiers in the east are American.
In other violence, police in the southern province of Uruzgan said that 11 Taliban were killed overnight after they attacked Afghan police and soldiers. And two Afghan soldiers were killed in Badghis province Friday when their vehicles hit a bomb, an Afghan army officer said.