Jalalabad, Afghanistan (AFP) Feb 21, 2011
Afghan officials Monday accused NATO forces of killing a family of six in an air strike, a day after President Hamid Karzai said 50 innocent people had died in aerial attacks nearby.
The incidents highlight again the sensitive issue of civilian casualties in the war against the Taliban, which is now in its tenth and arguably most critical year amid official warnings of more hard fighting ahead.
A limited withdrawal of foreign forces is expected to start from more stable provinces of Afghanistan from July ahead of a full transition to Afghan control by 2014.
In the latest civilian deaths, a couple and their four children were killed overnight when a misdirected NATO missile hit their mud-built home in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan in the east, local officials told AFP.
"The air strike was originally targeting three insurgents who were planting mines on a road. One missile mistakenly hit a house and killed six civilians, all members of the same family," said provincial spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.
Mohammad Hassen, governor of Khogyani district, confirmed the incident took place on his patch.
A local man, Bilal Karim, told AFP he was a cousin of the man of the family who died, named Patang. He put the death toll higher, at nine, and said the family had been visiting his wife's relatives when the attack happened.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was investigating the incident, which it accepted had "resulted in Afghan civilians being accidentally killed and wounded".
It said its troops had been targeting the three insurgents planting a bomb but local people later reported that "the roof of their compound collapsed during the engagement, resulting in the casualties."
"We are investigating this tragic incident," said ISAF's Colonel Patrick Hynes. "We will meet with local leaders in the area and ensure they understand what happened."
The strike came the day after Karzai accused NATO troops of killing some 50 civilians in five days of air strikes in Kunar province, which borders Nangarhar province.
Saying he "strongly condemns" the deaths, Karzai pledged to send investigators to the remote district.
ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Josef Blotz Monday stressed that the coalition force was looking into what happened.
But he added that troops had "verified that no apparent civilians or structures were present before firing on targets in a disciplined manner".
"One hundred percent of every helicopter mission is video recorded and the video clearly shows armed individuals reacting to the contact and to our attacks," he told a press conference. "That is what we have got so far."
Eastern Afghanistan is seen as key in the fight against the Taliban because it borders Pakistan's border regions, where the Islamist militants are thought to have rear bases.
A human rights watchdog said earlier this month that 2010 was the deadliest year for ordinary Afghans since the US-led invasion of 2001, with more than 2,400 civilians killed.
Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for more than 60 percent of the dead, the report by the Afghanistan Rights Monitor said, blaming the US-led force for 21 percent of casualties.
Nangarhar province, where the latest incident took place, was also the scene on Saturday of the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since June last year.
A Taliban assault on a bank in Nangarhar's provincial capital Jalalabad, apparently targeting policemen collecting their salaries, left 38 people dead and wounded more than 70 others.
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