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General Says U.S. Not to Blame in Death of Afghan Civilians

In an interview, the commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., insisted that the Taliban had caused the deaths, over April 5 and 6 in a mountainous area of Kunar Province, despite the findings of an Afghan government investigation and the accounts of a number of local residents who said the civilians had died of blast injuries incurred after repeated American airstrikes near the house they were in.

“No S.O.F., no U.S., no coalition forces were involved in the deaths,” General Dunford said, using the abbreviation for Special Operations forces. “It’s been investigated ad nauseam.”

The spokesman for President Hamid Karzai is equally adamant about the conclusion of the Afghan investigation: that the immediate cause of death was the airstrikes. The Afghan government also said reckless disregard for civilian lives had been shown by both the Taliban and a secretive Afghan paramilitary force with C.I.A. advisers. They were locked in a firefight that led the American operatives and their Afghan forces to call in the airstrikes.

“There is no change in our position: The airstrikes killed women and children,” said the spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

The violence in Kunar last month became one of the main exhibits in Mr. Karzai’s campaign to bring to heel American covert operations in Afghanistan, particularly by C.I.A.-affiliated militias. Mr. Faizi used the phrase “irresponsible armed groups” to describe them, and demanded that they either come under full Afghan control or be disbanded.

While it is difficult to evaluate the conflicting assessments because the investigation by the international military forces has not been made public, interviews with people who were in the village throughout the bombing and with doctors familiar with the physical effects of blast waves suggest that blast injuries are the mostly likely explanation.

Those interviews, as well as one with a member of the Afghan paramilitary team involved, suggest an operation that went catastrophically awry after a serious underestimation of the Taliban force’s strength. The villagers described the airstrikes as being particularly fierce to allow the C.I.A.-run force, known as a counterterrorism pursuit team, to escape with the body of one of its C.I.A. advisers who was killed.

American military officials would not say whether the C.I.A. is subject to engagement rules that try to protect civilians by sharply limiting airstrikes. Maj. David E. Nevers, spokesman for General Dunford, said even those directives allow for airstrikes when American troops are at risk of being overwhelmed by enemy fire. It appears that the same rules apply to the C.I.A.

The Afghan team and its C.I.A. advisers were searching a compound used by a prominent insurgent commander when they were besieged by a large Taliban force shooting into the compound, even though the children and relatives of Taliban insurgents were inside, several villagers said.

The Afghan team put the women and children together in one room as bullets began flying.

When the aircraft arrived, after the battle had been raging for hours the bombing was so unrelenting that one villager said it had sounded like “the end of the world.”

Multiple villagers said the barrage had involved eight or nine aircraft: roughly four airplanes, two helicopters, two drones and “one really big airplane” that locals described as “never running out of fuel or bombs.”

The bombing went on for an hour after the Taliban fire stopped, as the barrage struck in front of and behind the counterterrorism team’s vehicles as it brought its dead and wounded to a place where they could be flown out, residents said.

After the bombing, the villagers were stunned by what they saw: Instead of craters and collapsed houses, they saw no immediate evidence of the airstrikes.

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Kunar Province, Afghanistan; Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul; and C. J. Chivers from the United States.

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