Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — A NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan targeting Taliban militants accidentally killed civilians, NATO said Saturday, the latest in a string of deaths this month that have inflamed tensions between Washington and the Afghan government.
The incident occurred Friday in Helmand province, a longtime Taliban stronghold and one of the focal points of a U.S. troop buildup to retake southern Afghanistan from the insurgents' control. A NATO spokesman said a coalition forces aircraft launched a strike on two vehicles, one of which was thought to be carrying a senior Taliban commander.
The Taliban commander was believed killed in the airstrike, although that has yet to be confirmed, the spokesman said. But when North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops investigated the wreckage of the vehicles, they discovered that civilians had been killed and wounded in the strike. NATO investigators hadn't determined the number of civilian casualties, the spokesman said.
Helmand provincial authorities told the Associated Press that seven civilians were killed in the airstrike and five were wounded, and that they were in a car near the targeted vehicles.
Civilian deaths resulting from U.S. and NATO operations have severely strained relations between Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government. Although insurgents kill many more civilians than coalition forces do, the issue resonates more intensely with a population that dislikes the presence of Western soldiers.
According to the latest figures from the United Nations, 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010; about three-fourths of those deaths were attributed to suicide bombings, roadside bomb attacks and other insurgent actions. The number of civilian deaths attributed to NATO forces dropped by 21% in 2010, the U.N. said.
In March, however, civilians have died in five incidents attributed to coalition forces.
The March 1 deaths of nine children mistakenly targeted by NATO airstrikes and artillery fire in the eastern province of Kunar triggered an angry response from Karzai, who called the attack "ruthless" and warned that civilian deaths and injuries undermined NATO's efforts to defeat the insurgency. The nine boys, between the ages of 8 and 14, were gathering firewood on a mountainside when they were mistaken for Taliban insurgents who had fired on a nearby U.S. base.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, apologized for the incident, saying, "These deaths should never have happened."
On March 14, a NATO airstrike in Kunar killed two youths who had been mistaken for insurgents planting a roadside bomb, NATO and local officials said. A week earlier, a cousin of Karzai was killed in a night raid by coalition forces in the southern province of Kandahar.
On Wednesday, a NATO helicopter accidentally killed two civilians during an attack on a car carrying insurgents in the eastern province of Khowst. The airstrike killed a leader in the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network and two other insurgents. Just before the airstrike, two civilians emerged from a ravine and were walking past the insurgents' car when the attack took place.