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Villagers attend a prayer ceremony Friday in Kandahar City. Afghan officials say several dozen civilians were killed during NATO operations on Tuesday in the nearby Panjwaii district. ((Allauddin Khan/AP))

Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan are working with NATO and Afghan officials to investigate claims by local people that dozens of civilians died in heavy fighting Tuesday between NATO and Taliban forces.

Local villagers have fled districts outside of the city of Kandahar and there were angry scenes Thursday atfuneral services for some of the victims.

A NATO spokesman says 12 civilian bodies have been seen so far and it's likely that many of the other casualties were Taliban fighters.

Local officials say between 40 and 80 civilians were killed in three separate incidents involving aerial bombardment and artillery shelling.

Canadian troops have been meeting tribal leaders and Muslim clerics in the area to look into the claims and to attempt to mollify growing anger about the deaths, according to the CBC's Stephen Puddicombe, who is travelling with a Canadian military convoy in the area.

NATO and Afghan army units came under heavy attack from Taliban fighters during operations Tuesday and called in air and artillery strikes.U.S. aircraft dropped several 500-kilogram bombs on what were thought to be "Taliban strongholds,"Puddicombe reported.

Canadian troops were not involved in the fighting or the air attacks that led to the civilian casualties, he said.

'Always a tragedy' -NATO's Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Speaking at a news conference in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffersaid civilian deaths were a "tragedy," but blamed the Taliban.

"We [NATO] are there in favour ofdemocracy," he said, "but they are there to destroy democracy."

14 die in landmine blast

Meanwhile, there were more civilian casualties in southern Afghanistan Friday.At least 14villagers travelling to Eid-al-Fitr celebrations in a nearby town were killed when an explosion tore apart their vehicle.

Three people were also wounded in the blast, which occurred north of Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, said Abdul Qayum Qayumi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Qayumitold the Associated Press that police have not yet determined if the explosion was caused by a mine left on the ground from previous conflicts in Afghanistan or by a bomb that had been planted by insurgents who are currently battling NATO forces in the country.

Capt. Andre Salloum, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, blamed the blast on an anti-tank mine, but said it wasn't clear who had planted it.

Canada has more than 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, the majority stationed in the volatile southern province of Kandahar. Forty-two Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since Canada first sent troops there in early 2002.

With files from the Associated Press