WASHINGTON (AP) -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called it a tragedy that NATO troops killed Afghan civilians this week -- and privately told President Bush that Taliban-associated militants used the civilians as human shields.
The deaths occurred Tuesday during NATO operations in the Panjwayi district of southern Afghanistan, aimed at quelling the country's deadliest spate of violence since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led forces five years ago. Militants increasingly have resorted to suicide and roadside bombs, particularly in the south and east of the country near Pakistan.
NATO has said its initial reports found 12 civilians were killed. But Afghan officials have estimated between 30 and 80 died, including many women and children. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday that three houses were destroyed, killing most of the people inside, and that his Defense Ministry was leading an investigation.
"When, in those actions of NATO, of those brave NATO soldiers, civilians are killed, as happened two days ago, that's always a tragedy," de Hoop Scheffer said after meeting for about an hour with Bush.
De Hoop Scheffer did not say publicly that the Taliban were to blame for the civilian deaths, instead stressing in his remarks at Bush's side in the Oval Office that the NATO mission is defending democracy in a country once ruled by the repressive regime.
"Girls did not go to school when the Taliban were running Afghanistan. Now they go to school. Now there is a president. Now there is a government," he said. "Civilian victims are a tragedy, but we are there in favor of democracy. They are there to destroy democracy, and they are there to destroy our values."
White House press secretary Tony Snow said de Hoop Scheffer told Bush that the Taliban were using civilians as human shields before they were killed Tuesday.
"Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer was really adamant about the kind of atrocities that are now being practiced by the Taliban and the importance of continued pressure on them and continuing to fight them," Snow said.
Bush did not mention the incident at all, calling NATO a "values-based organization."
Bismallah Afghanmal, a provincial council member, has said that fighters fled into civilian homes, which were then attacked by NATO forces. And Karzai suggested it was possible the Taliban had deliberately put civilians in harm's way.
"Did the terrorists use the houses of the people?" he asked. "No doubt in the past five years the terrorists, the enemy of Afghanistan, they hid in mosques and people's homes."
Also, on Friday in Afghanistan, a roadside blast ripped through a pickup truck in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 villagers who were traveling to a provincial capital for holiday celebrations.
NATO expanded its mission this year from the relatively stable northern and western parts of the country to far more dangerous areas in the south. De Hoop Scheffer has said more troops will be needed.
Bush and de Hoop Scheffer did not discuss NATO troop levels, nor the suspension of two German soldiers in connection with photos of troops posing with human skulls, Snow said.
They did discuss Sudan's violence-plagued Darfur region, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been displaced in three years of fighting. "There was some conversation of the proper way to provide greater security in Darfur and protect people," Snow said.
The two leaders were meeting ahead of a NATO summit planned for next month in the Latvian capital of Riga, where strengthening relations with democracies such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan is expected to be on the agenda. This move is favored by the United States, Britain and some other members but opposed by France, which objects to the alliance's taking on a global dimension.
De Hoop Scheffer has said the trans-Atlantic security concept must be re-evaluated because of international terrorism. He said NATO has no desire to be the world's policeman but is the right tool for an international security partnership.