KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO officials apologized Monday for an airstrike that inadvertently killed a group of women and children, saying that they thought there were only insurgents inside the targeted compound when they ordered the strike.
Accidental deaths of civilians from coalition military operations are an ongoing source of tension between Afghans and NATO. The international coalition has sharply reduced the number of civilians killed in its operations but Afghan officials say any civilian deaths from allied strikes are unacceptable.
Southwest regional commander U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan issued an official apology early Monday morning on behalf of top coalition commanders Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez for the killing of civilians in Saturday's attack.
"I want to offer my sincere apologies for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident in Nawzad district, Helmand province," Toolan said. The Afghan government has said 14 civilians were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.
Toolan said that the airstrike was launched after an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol in the district killed a Marine. Five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who called in an airstrike "to neutralize the threat," Toolan said.
"Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians," Toolan said. "A full investigation is ongoing to determine the exact details of this incident. While I know there is no price on human life we will ensure that we make amends with the families in accordance with Afghan culture."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack in a statement issued Sunday and warned the coalition that such errors cannot continue.
"American and NATO forces have been told repeatedly that uncoordinated operations will only kill innocent civilians and that such operations are inhumane. It seems that the lesson has not been learned," Karzai said in a statement.
"This will be the last warning to NATO and American forces, and American officials," Karzai said. He did not say what action he would take if another strike results in civilian deaths.
It is unclear what leverage Karzai ultimately has over military operations conducted by NATO, which is working in Afghanistan under an international mandate. White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on Karzai's warning, but said that the United States shares his concerns about civilian deaths and works with Afghan officials to avoid undue loss of life.
Karzai has vacillated between calling for an end to airstrikes and night raids and softer rebukes of NATO forces telling them they have to exercise more caution. NATO officials have maintained that these targeted strikes are one of their most successful tools for fighting the Taliban insurgency.
Civilian deaths have risen as the fighting has intensified in Afghanistan, but the vast majority of civilian deaths come from insurgent attacks, not coalition strikes.
At least 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, a 15 percent increase over the prior year, according to a United Nations report. The insurgency was blamed for most of those deaths, and while civilian deaths attributed to NATO troops declined 21 percent in 2010, Afghan leaders say the number remains too high.
Deaths of NATO troops and Afghan forces have also been increasing.
On Sunday, a roadside bomb killed four police officers in the south who were on a convoy patrol with NATO troops. Their vehicle struck a bomb laid in the road in Nad Ali district of Helmand province.
- Gen. David Petraeus