KABUL, Afghanistan — A new dispute over civilian deaths erupted Sunday when Afghan officials claimed an errant NATO airstrike had killed 14 people, women and children among them.
Western military officials said the incident in Helmand province, which took place late Saturday, was under investigation.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said the airstrike was in apparent retaliation for an insurgent attack against a U.S. Marine base in the district of Now Zad. But he said the compound that was hit contained residential structures. In addition to the 14 deaths, six people were injured, he said.
Helmand has been a key battleground for more than a year, and the ability of American forces to subdue insurgents in the province is expected to play a part in decision-making about the scope of a U.S. troop pullback that is to take place in July.
The latest confrontation over civilian casualties is likely to exacerbate serious tensions between Western forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai. Hours before word of the deaths in Helmand emerged, the Afghan leader had issued a strongly worded statement calling for an end to night raids by NATO troops on Afghan residential compounds.
But another such strike, this one carried out overnight in Khost province near the Pakistan border, nearly coincided with Karzai's message. NATO's International Security Assistance force said Sunday that an "individual" -- later discovered to be a woman -- had run toward the arriving forces wielding a rocket launcher. She was shot and killed, the military said in a statement.
Afghan officials said they were still weighing whether to accept the Western account of the incident. It is very rare for women to actively take up arms against foreign troops, but this marked the third death this month of a female during a U.S.-led night raid.
Human rights groups say night raids, mainly executed by special-operations troops, carry an unacceptably high risk of civilian casualties, because Afghans surprised after dark by the arrival of armed men often believe they are under attack by insurgents or bandits. Nearly every rural home in this country contains weapons, but Afghans who wield them during raids are almost always shot dead.
Western commanders, however, say targeted strikes on residential compounds have led to the capture and killing of thousands of insurgent figures. The campaign of raids, they say, has done serious damage to the field-command structures of the Taliban and other militant groups.