HEART (Agencies) - Afghans who lost family members in a US bombardment last week say Taliban had fled hours before the US attack - an account that contrasts with Pentagon claims about an incident that has come to encapsulate an uphill battle for Afghan hearts and minds, reports The Washington Times. Haji Sayed Barakat, who lost two children and his 35-year-old wife in the May 4 attack, said Taliban were present in the area but had moved on two hours before the US airstrikes. In a voice more confused than angry, the Afghan farmer gestured towards his three remaining daughters, now recovering in the sterile quarters of Herat hospitals new burn ward. My girls, do they look like Taliban? he asked. Afghan officials say 140 people, including 95 children, died in the operation in the countrys western Farah province. The figures, if confirmed, would amount to the largest number of civilians killed in a single incident since US forces helped oust a Taliban government in 2001. Barakat said his wife and children had left their family home to visit his mother-in-law in Gerani, one of three villages that were bombed in Farah provinces Bala Boluk district on the night of May 4. He insisted that no Taliban were present when the US explosives struck. A US military spokesman disputed the claim, saying the airstrikes were called in after an Afghan national army soldier was injured in an engagement with the militants. The entire operation was in response to the Taliban attack. It was never an offensive engagement. The fight was in reaction, said Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo. US military officials claimed the Taliban corralled residents into compounds on the front lines of a running battle with Afghan forces. The officials conceded that a number of people were killed, but initially said the Taliban caused the deaths by exploding grenades among villagers and drawing an airstrike to exploit anger in the aftermath. Later, US officials said the Taliban forced villagers to pick up weapons and shoot first at police, then at arriving Afghan army reinforcements. Meanwhile, the latest outrage of massive civilian casualties in US airstrikes needs to be the last if the United States wants to have credibility in Afghanistan, campaign group Human Rights Watch said Friday. Afghans have heard promises from the US before that they would take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties, Human Rights Watchs Asia director, Brad Adams, said in a statement. But if the US is to have any credibility, this latest outrage needs to be the last of its kind, he said. New York-based Human Rights Watch said accounts from villagers and officials contradicted US statements that the Taliban were responsible for many of the deaths because they had used civilians as human shields. Locals had told HRW investigators that the insurgents had left their area before the most of the bombs hit. Dozens of those killed were said to be among villagers who had taken shelter from fighting in the compounds of religious and tribal leaders that were hit by the bombs, it said. Villagers have given similar accounts to AFP, saying this is why a high number of women and children were among the dead.