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NATO says Afghan civilians killed in shooting
(For more on Afghanistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK])
By Jonathon Burch
KABUL, April 21 (Reuters) - The NATO-led force in Afghanistan acknowledged on Wednesday it had killed four Afghan civilians when it opened fire on a car in the southeast of the country this week after initially saying two of the dead were insurgents.
In a sign senior commanders are becoming increasingly frustrated by a recent spate of civilian deaths from highway shootings -- which the military calls "escalation of force incidents" -- NATO said it was also deploying trainers throughout Afghanistan to make sure troops understand combat guidance.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign forces cause deep anger among ordinary Afghans and have eroded public support for the presence of more than 120,000 international troops fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
The issue has also caused a serious rift between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his foreign backers.
On Tuesday, NATO said it had opened fire on a vehicle in southeastern Khost province on the evening of April 19, killing two "known insurgents" and two "associates". A spokesman later acknowledged all may have been civilians.
In a media statement on Wednesday, NATO said it had been wrong to describe two of the dead as "insurgents". A spokesman confirmed they were civilians.
"The term 'insurgent' should not have been used to describe two occupants of a vehicle involved in an escalation of force incident in Khost province Monday," NATO said.
Asked whether that meant all of those killed were civilians, NATO spokesman Master Sergeant Jeffrey Loftin said: "Yes, sir."
On Tuesday, another NATO spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Vician, said the two had been described as insurgents because they were found in the military's vast biometric database.
The database includes tens of thousands of civilians as well as suspected insurgents. None of the four were armed and no weapons were found, Vician said.
Since taking command last year, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has introduced new guidelines aimed at reducing civilian casualties by his forces and has had some success in bringing the numbers down.
The U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, last week described the recent spate of incidents as a "disturbing trend".
On Wednesday, NATO said it would send training teams all over the country to make sure troops understand McChrystal's orders and "implement critical lessons learned from previous incidents", Major General Mike Regner, in charge of operations, said in the statement.
The father of two of the victims in Monday's shooting, Rahmatullah Mansoor, a judge in Khost's provincial court, said three of those killed were teenagers and the fourth was an off-duty policeman in his 20s.
The four were gunned down in their car as they were returning from a volleyball match, he told Reuters on Tuesday. Karzai condemned the incident and said all four were civilians.
More than 2,400 civilians were killed in 2009, the United Nations says, making it the deadliest year of a war now more than eight years old. While foreign and Afghan troops killed 25 percent fewer civilians last year than in 2008, deaths rose overall because the number killed by insurgents rose 40 percent.
(Editing by Paul Tait) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
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