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Blast after Afghan air strike, scores feared killed

SCORES of people were feared killed today in northern Afghanistan when NATO aircraft struck hijacked fuel tankers as villagers came to collect fuel, Afghan officials said.

NATO forces confirmed that they had carried out an air strike, and said their target was insurgents. They had no immediate information about the report of the explosion and casualties.

Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar said as many as 90 people were feared killed, burned alive in the giant blast.

Civilian casualties from NATO strikes have caused outrage among Afghans. The new commander of NATO and US forces in the country, General Stanley McChrystal, has made curbing such casualties a main focus of his strategy.

The incident also demonstrates 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.

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 for this," he said.

Asked about reports the blast may have been caused by NATO forces firing on fuel tankers, Captain Jon Stock, press officer for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said: "I can confirm that there was an air strike last night or early this morning."

He later added: "ISAF's target in the air raid was insurgents." However, he said he was unable to comment on the reports of the blast.


A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said fighters had captured two fuel tankers. One had become stuck in mud by a village, and the fighters went to find a truck to tow it.

Residents came to collect the fuel when the tanker was struck from the air, he said.

Dozens of relatives gathered at the Kunduz Central Hospital in the provincial capital.

"My brother was burnt when the aircraft bombed the fuel tankers. I don't know whether he is dead or alive," weeping villager Ghulam Yahya told Reuters outside the hospital.

Mohammad Humayun Khamosh, a doctor at the hospital, said 13 people with burns had been brought there for treatment, but none of the dead had been taken to the hospital's morgue because the bodies were too badly burnt.

"It is very hard to collect dead bodies or remains from the blast because the fuel they were collecting was highly flammable," he said.

US President Barack Obama has made stabilising Afghanistan a foreign policy priority although public support for the war has eroded as US combat deaths have risen to record levels.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday the military resources needed to stem Taliban gains were arriving in Afghanistan but signaled he would be open to sending additional troops, asserting the war was not "slipping through the administration's fingers".

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due to confront critics of his policy on Afghanistan on Friday, saying Britain cannot walk away from the conflict when its own security is at stake.

Brown has been under pressure to justify the British mission in Afghanistan after some 40 British soldiers have died there in the last two months.


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