New airstrikes in a volatile southern Afghan region have killed up to 10 Taliban fighters close to where villagers say about 40 civilians died during a battle.
Taliban fighters ambushed a patrol of U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces near Sangin in Helmand province Thursday evening, and gunfire and airstrikes killed 10 militants, said Eizatullah Khan, the Sangin district chief.
A coalition spokesman, Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, put the toll at six Taliban killed. He had no further details. Two villagers from Sangin said they knew of no civilian casualties caused by the fight.
Airstrikes called in by U.S. Special Forces fighting some 200 Taliban militants north of Sangin on Tuesday killed 21 civilians, government officials said, while villagers said nearly 40 civilians were killed.
The U.S.-led coalition confirmed that the battle caused civilian casualties, killing at least one child, and that a joint Afghan-U.S. team would investigate.
Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told NPR News' "Morning Edition" that "it does appear there were civilian casualties" but that it wasn't clear what caused them. He said it was likely the Taliban militants had been firing on coalition forces from civilian homes.
Elsewhere, the Taliban released French aid worker Eric Damfreville of Terre d'Enfance after five weeks in captivity, and the militant group credited the release to comments by France's President-elect Nicholas Sarkozy that French troops would eventually leave Afghanistan.
Damfreville was kidnapped with a female colleague and three Afghans on April 3. The female worker was released late last month. There was no word on the fate of the Afghans.
The U.S.-led coalition said villagers around Sangin reported detaining 15 Taliban fighters on Friday. The coalition said villagers "have become angered with Taliban enemy fighters due to the aftermath of the battle" on Tuesday and that they fear retaliation from Taliban.
Haji Pir Mohammad, a villager from Soro, said Friday that 37 people were killed and 21 wounded after aircraft bombed four civilian homes Tuesday. He said 12 family members were killed in one home. Another villager, Mohammad Asif, said earlier this week that 38 civilians died in the airstrikes.
Khan, the Sangin district chief, said he did not think the death toll was that high.
"There are always people who will say that 40 or 60 people were killed, but the civilian toll appears to be around 20," said Khan.
Death tolls in remote battle sites in Afghanistan are nearly impossible to verify.