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The scene of Afghanistan's latest civilian bombing was still smoking, the injured still moaning in the dust, when villagers witnessed the Taliban's unnerving ability to exploit the carnage for propaganda.

Armed insurgents arrived almost immediately at the blasted patch of desert near Hyderabad in Helmand province, villagers say - speaking in grateful tones about the gunmen who helped them recover the bodies and ferry the injured to hospitals.

"All the people in this area will start jihad against the foreign troops," said Haji Nazar Mohammed, 50, a small-time farmer who claimed to have lost dozens of relatives. By declaring jihad, or holy war, against the soldiers, the villagers would commit themselves to helping the Taliban.

In the two days since the overnight bombing left an unknown number of people dead on Saturday morning, residents say the Taliban have been busy drumming up support in the affected area, offering rudimentary medical care, and even helping journalists arrange telephone interviews with relatives of the victims.

Dur Ali Shah, the government's district chief, says he cannot offer the victims any help of his own because the area remains too dangerous for him to visit.

Village elders visited him on Saturday and claimed they had recovered the bodies of 45 civilians and 62 Taliban, he said, but he has no way of confirming the information.

Those figures would make the Hyderabad bombing one of the largest in years, although NATO disputes the numbers.

A NATO spokesman said he believes the dead civilians amount to a dozen at the most, adding that the force will co-operate with Afghan investigations into the incident.

President Hamid Karzai ordered a six-man team yesterday to prepare a detailed report on the bombings. Parallel investigations by the Afghan National Police and local human-rights workers are already under way.

Details remain unclear, even for people who survived the incident.

The fighting started on Friday night when insurgents used a civilian house to launch an attack on government forces, said Mr. Shah, the district chief.

A police official said earlier that Taliban ambushed foreign troops and then fled into the village of Hyderabad, which was then targeted with bombs.

Villagers say they heard the fighting and fled toward a makeshift camp in a barren area.

They had hoped to get away from the trees and vineyards where Taliban might hide, they said, because the didn't want to get caught in the crossfire.

"This is what usually happens during the fighting: The people run to the desert," said Khudai Dad, 50, a wealthy landowner from Hyderabad.

Two tractors were pulling carts loaded with families trying to escape when they were hit with bombs, villagers said. Some accounts said a sedan was also caught in the blasts.

"I saw many women and children with their heads, legs, arms, separated from their bodies," Mr. Dad said. "I saw tractors burned, and women and children were burned in their seats ... some of them, we couldn't tell if they were men or women."

The number of civilian deaths inflicted by NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan has risen dramatically, with roughly 300 killed so far this year.

One of the major exceptions to this trend has been in Kandahar province, where Canadian commanders say they haven't heard any complaints of civilian casualties in 2007.