"These deaths should never have happened," Gen. David H. Petraeus,… (Odd Andersen, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, apologized Wednesday for the accidental deaths of nine civilians, identified by Afghan officials as children killed as they gathered firewood in a mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan. A 10th child was injured in the bombardment, Afghan officials said.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force's unusually swift acceptance of responsibility for Tuesday's deaths in Kunar province followed a highly public burst of outrage by Afghan officials. Civilian deaths and injuries are a bitterly divisive issue between the Western military and the government of President Hamid Karzai, particularly when children are involved.
In a statement, Petraeus said NATO's International Security Assistance Force was "deeply sorry for this tragedy." Expressing condolences to the families of those killed, the general said he would make a personal apology to Karzai upon the Afghan leader's return from an official visit to London.
"These deaths should never have happened," Petraeus said.
Western military officials had said that the episode began when insurgents fired rockets at an American outpost in Dara-i-Pech district, slightly injuring a local contractor. Troops responded with what they described as aerial bombardment and "indirect fire," which usually means artillery strikes.
Petraeus' apology suggested that the children spotted on the mountainside were mistaken for the insurgents who had mounted the attack on the base.
"Regrettably, there appears to have been an error in the handoff between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations," the statement said.
The apology came hours after Karzai issued a harshly worded denunciation of the attack, which he called "ruthless," adding that the deaths and injuries of noncombatants seriously undermined Western war aims.
Kunar province last month was the scene of another civilian-casualty episode that prompted an angry confrontation between the Karzai government and the NATO force. The Western military said its initial findings were that three dozen armed insurgents had died in a series of airstrikes, but Afghan officials put the death toll at more than 60 and said most of those killed were civilians, including women and children.
That incident took on even more incendiary overtones when Afghan officials said that Petraeus, in a closed-door meeting, had suggested that some children hospitalized after the attack could have been injured by parents who scalded their hands or feet as a form of punishment.
A Petraeus spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, vehemently denied that Petraeus had implied the injuries were inflicted by the children's relatives to bolster accusations against Western troops but acknowledged that the general had made a reference to past reports on the practice of using scalding as a means of discipline.
The Kunar provincial police chief, Khalilullah Ziayee, said the nine children ranged in age from 8 to 14.
Tension over civilian casualties has aggravated rocky relations between the president and his Western backers. Karzai and the Obama administration have quarreled openly during the last 18 months over corruption, election fraud and other issues.
Independent organizations, including the United Nations, blame insurgents for the bulk of civilian casualties, hundreds of which are caused each year by Taliban suicide attacks and roadside bombings. However, deaths at the hands of foreign forces tend to arouse greater public fury, with Afghans arguing that the Western military should be held to a higher standard.
Both Petraeus and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, ordered field commanders to take stringent measures to avoid civilian casualties. But Petraeus has been seen as allowing somewhat greater leeway in the targeting of suspected insurgents.
The general promised a full investigation of Tuesday's deaths and said crews of attack helicopters would be "re-briefed … reinforcing the need to be sure we protect the lives of innocent Afghans as we pursue a ruthless enemy." Petraeus left open the possibility of disciplinary action.