Scores of civilians died in last week's NATO air strike on populated area in northern Afghanistan, a prominent domestic rights group said on Monday in a first independent estimate of the death toll.
Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a non-governmental group funded by domestic rights campaigners, said in a report based on more than a dozen interviews with local residents that between 60 and 70 civilians died in the Sept. 4 strike in the Char Dara district of Kunduz province.
"Preliminary reports received by ... ARM indicated 60-70 non-combatants died," said the Kabul-based group.
"Even if all the victims were supporters of the Taliban the fact that most of them were unarmed and were not engaged in any combat activity does not warrant their mass killing."
The Friday incident was the first in which Western forces were accused of killing large numbers of civilians since U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal took command of foreign forces in June announcing "protecting" Afghans was the centrepiece of a new strategy.
NATO has yet to finish its investigation into the incident, but claimed some civilians may have been killed.
ARM said in a statement that more than a dozen armed men also died in the incident when a U.S. F-15 fighter jet called in by German troops struck two hijacked fuel trucks.
Afghan officials say scores of people were killed, including civilians, but the government has not offered any estimates. The NATO strike was condemned by many European officials at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Stockholm.
Provincial authorities have given conflicting figures. A lawmaker from Kunduz on Sunday put civilian deaths at 65.
Killing civilians "necessary"
However, German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung defended his troops on Sunday for their attacks on civilians in the most deadly operation involving German forces since World War Two.
He also claimed that only Taliban forces were killed in strike.
"The air strike was absolutely necessary," Jung told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "I can't comprehend how some can so quickly criticise the military action without knowing what the situation was or the background information."
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.