NATO air strike a "major error" - Afghan president
* Berlin defends strike
* Karzai says U.S. criticism aimed at weakening him
* Afghan rights group says 60-70 civilians died
* Taliban seen gaining influence in north
(For more on Afghanistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK]) (Updates with additional Karzai comments, White House comments on election; paragraphs 2, 25-32)
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Sept 7 (Reuters) - A NATO air strike believed to have killed scores of Afghan civilians was a major "error of judgement" by German forces, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview published on Monday.
Karzai, who is closing in on a first-round victory in a presidential election held last month, also revealed in the interview strained relations with the United States, saying criticism of his friends and family was intended to undermine his own position and make him more malleable.
Germany again defended the decision of its commander in the area to call in the raid last week and brushed off suggestions restrictions it places on its soldiers had prevented them from approaching the scene and from fighting ground battles.
"General (Stanley) McChrystal telephoned me to apologise and to say that he himself hadn't given the order to attack," Karzai told French newspaper Le Figaro, referring to the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Berlin has warned against hasty judgments of the deadliest operation involving German forces since World War Two.
The strike, in which a U.S. F-15 fighter jet summoned by German troops bombed fuel trucks hijacked by the Taliban, has become a big domestic issue in Germany weeks before elections.
"Why didn't they send in ground troops to recover the fuel tank?" Karzai said in the interview with Le Figaro.
German Defence Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe on Monday said the decision to order the strike was based on information that indicated the presence of armed Taliban near the tankers.
"STRIKE RIGHT DECISION"
He rejected suggestions that a German reluctance to shoot first in combat was behind a decision not to send ground troops to secure the fuel trucks, which were parked in a riverbed.
"Based on the information we have, we believe this strike was right and the suggestion that we are not capable of fighting (ground) battles is ridiculous," said Raabe at a news conference where he was grilled for more than an hour.
"You must realise we are talking about the middle of the night, with special visibility conditions, where we don't know what the enemy is planning. Therefore I think the decision that was made at the time was absolutely correct," he said.
In a first independent estimate of the death toll, a prominent Afghan rights group said up to 70 civilians had been killed in the strike in Char Dara district of Kunduz province.
Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a non-governmental group funded by domestic rights campaigners, said it had reached the figure based on interviews with residents in the area.
"Preliminary reports received by ... ARM indicated 60-70 non-combatants died," said the Kabul-based group.
"Even if all the victims were supporters of the Taliban the fact that most of them were unarmed and were not engaged in any combat activity does not warrant their mass killing."
Friday's incident was the first in which Western forces were accused of killing large numbers of civilians since McChrystal took command of foreign forces in June announcing that protecting Afghans was a priority. NATO has yet to finish its probe but acknowledges civilians may have been killed.
ARM said in a statement that more than a dozen armed men also died in the air strike.
Afghan officials say scores of people were killed, including civilians, but have given conflicting tolls. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said the exact toll may never be known because bodies were incinerated.
The Taliban have become increasingly active in Kunduz, a region bordering Tajikistan which had been previously calm -- a worrying sign for U.S.-led troops.
The Taliban said they had set up their own commission to investigate the incident and released a list of 79 people they said were all civilians killed in the air raid.
The list shows names of victims, fathers' names and ages and includes 24 children under 18. The militants say those killed were from Char Dara and neighbouring Aliabad districts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will go before parliament on Tuesday to explain government strategy in Afghanistan.
The NATO strike was condemned by several European officials at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Stockholm.
Merkel, who has been slammed for failing to convince Germans of the need for the Afghan mission, on Sunday urged a "quick, comprehensive and transparent" probe into the strike.
Polls show about two-thirds of Germans would like the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan to return home.
Karzai also said in the interview that he supported a proposed shift in U.S. military tactics in Afghanistan.
The Afghan president said McChrystal had showed him the proposals which emphasised protecting the Afghan population rather than killing Taliban.
He said U.S. criticism of his running mate, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, was actually aimed at him.
"The Americans attack Karzai in an underhand fashion because they want him to be more tractable. They are wrong. It is in their interest ... that Afghanistan's people respect their president," he said, referring to himself in the third person.
A White House official said on Monday Afghan officials need to address allegations of vote fraud in order to assure a legitimate outcome of the presidential election.
"The Afghans are counting votes ... They've got to address any accusations that are out there and assure people of the legitimacy of the election, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters during a trip by President Barack Obama to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Karzai told Le Figaro there might have been fraud in the election, but indicated he did not think it was important. His main challenger Abdullah Abdullah has said there was large-scale cheating.
"As far as the elections are concerned, there was fraud in 2004, there is today, there will be tomorrow. Alas, it is inevitable in a nascent democracy," he said.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in BERLIN, Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Matt Spetalnick in CINCINNATI; writing by Jonathon Burch; editing by Andrew Roche and Eric Walsh) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http:/www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)
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