Officials including Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday accused NATO-led international forces of killing up to seven civilians, most of them children, in an air strike in the south.

The incident happened late Wednesday in Zhari district of Kandahar province, a traditional Taliban stronghold where NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops claim significant progress in recent months.

The Kandahar Governor's office said the air strike was aimed against insurgents who were planting mines, but they then fled into a village, where ISAF forces pursued them and struck. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul acknowledged that the “unfortunate” incident had involved “several civilians being killed and injured” and said it came in response to insurgent action.

It has launched an inquiry into what happened.

The issue of civilian casualties in air strikes is highly sensitive in Afghanistan and has fuelled tensions between Mr. Karzai and his Western backers.

Mr. Karzai's office issued a statement saying he “strongly condemned” the strike, which it said killed seven people including six children, as well as injuring two young girls. The President has also tasked a team with investigating the incident.

The Governor of Zhari district Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said the strike was aimed at Taliban fighters planting roadside mines in the area but missed its target and hit residential areas nearby.

Different version

But the Governor's office in Kandahar gave a slightly different explanation.

It said two insurgents had been killed in an air strike, “while the three remaining fled and hid themselves among civilian houses.”

ISAF commanders say the Taliban and other insurgents frequently hide among the local population in a bid to protect themselves.

However, ISAF forces are supposed to take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties.

The United States general who commands ISAF troops in Afghanistan, General John Allen, wrote in July that he expected “every member of ISAF to be seized with the intent to eliminate civilian casualties caused by ISAF”.

Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq said three Taliban had died out of a total death toll of nine, while investigations were continuing to ascertain the identity of the others. — AFP

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