Kandahar: A roadside bomb hit a wedding party on its way to a ceremony in southern Afghanistan, killing 21 people including women and children, Afghan officials said Thursday.
A local police chief said that a Western airstrike hours later killed five farmers loading cucumbers into a taxi in a neighboring province. A US spokeswoman said the men were militants placing weapons into a van.
Violence and deaths are climbing sharply as Western forces push into Taliban territory ahead of Aug 20 presidential elections, but rising civilian casualties are seen as deeply damaging to the international effort to defeat the insurgents.
The US and its allies say protecting Afghans is now the highest priority, and the new US commander in Afghanistan imposed rules last month restricting airstrikes. The Taliban released a code of conduct pledging to limit attacks on civilians and curb suicide bombings.
The large group of men, women and children heading to the wedding were riding a tractor in the Garmser district of Helmand province Wednesday morning when they were hit by a roadside bomb, provincial police chief Assadullah Sherzad said.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said 21 people were killed and five others were wounded.
Some 4,000 Marines moved into the Garmser area last month to secure roads and population centers ahead of the presidential vote. The insurgents have pledged to disrupt the election and dramatically increased their use of roadside bombs against foreign and Afghan forces across southern Afghanistan, the traditional territory of the largely ethnic Pashtun Taliban.
A US Apache helicopter opened fire Wednesday night in neighboring Kandahar province when it spotted men it believed to be loading weapons into a van, said Lt Cmdr Christine Sidenstricker, a US spokeswoman.
District police chief Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said the five were farmers trying to move cucumbers from the rural Zhari district to the city of Kandahar around 11:30 pm Wednesday.
It is common for farmers to work at night in southern Afghanistan`s blazing summer temperatures. Insurgents also plant bombs and move weapons in darkness, although US aircraft can monitor them using night-vision equipment.
"We watched the guys loading small arms into a van for an hour before firing on it, Sidenstricker said. "Our information is that they were loading munitions not cucumbers," she said.
The UN says civilian deaths soared by 24 percent during the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year and blamed most of the casualties on Taliban attacks launched with little regard for civilian lives.
The toll among Western and Afghan forces is also rising sharply: Afghan officials said a roadside bomb killed five police officers and wounded three police in Helmand province Thursday.
The Western toll for August rose to 11 as the US military reported that one of its service members had been killed by a roadside bomb in western Afghanistan on Wednesday. NATO said the death came after its troops battled insurgents spotted placing roadside bombs, but then were hit by a roadside bomb themselves.
July was the bloodiest month for the US and NATO in the nearly eight-year war. At least 42 US service members and 31 from other international military forces were killed, according to military reports.