KABUL (Reuters) - At least seven children were killed in a U.S.-led coalition air strike on a religious school in Afghanistan, the coalition said on Monday, amid rising anger over civilian deaths from foreign military operations.
Up to 60 civilians have been killed in the past three days in the southern Uruzgan province alone, a senior provincial official said.
Some 50 Taliban and Afghan forces were also killed in the battles in Chora district of the rugged province, the head of the provincial council, Mawlavi Hamdullah, told Reuters.
A NATO spokesman in Kabul, Major John Thomas, said he knew that a large number of “insurgents” were killed in the battle in the district but said he was aware of only 11 civilians being wounded.
Earlier on Monday, the U.S.-led coalition force apologized for the deaths of the children at a madrasa in southeastern Paktia province at the weekend but said they had no idea children were present when the premises were attacked.
“We are truly sorry for the innocent lives lost in this attack,” said Army Major Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, in a statement. “We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building.”
The statement said children who survived Sunday’s raid said insurgents had forced pupils to stay inside the madrasa. The White House accused the Taliban of using human shields.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said: ”Obviously any time innocents are killed it is something that is a tragedy and certainly we grieve for those who are lost.
“We also understand that ... the Taliban and other terrorists try to transform innocents into human shields.”
There was no independent verification of the attack.
The air strike on the school occurred on the same day a suspected suicide bomber killed more than 20 people in an attack on a police bus in the heart of Kabul.
Other violence around the country made Sunday one of the bloodiest days since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
The U.S.-led and Afghan forces killed several dozen insurgents in a “prolonged battle” in the southern province of Helmand that day, the U.S. military said on Monday.
Also on Sunday, in a separate incident, three coalition soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were killed after a roadside bomb hit their vehicle near Kandahar in the south.
A 44-year-old Dutch soldier was killed and three injured fighting with coalition forces in the nearby Chora region at the weekend, military officials announced in Amsterdam on Monday.
The air strike on the madrasa occurred in the southeastern province of Paktika near the Pakistan border.
The coalition said it had been part of an operation aimed at a compound containing a mosque and a madrasa thought to have been used as a safe house by al Qaeda fighters.
Violence has surged in Afghanistan in recent months after the traditional winter lull, with foreign forces launching attacks against Taliban strongholds in the south and east and Taliban guerrillas hitting back with suicide bombings.
Al Qaeda is fighting alongside the Taliban to overthrow the Western-backed government and drive out foreign troops. U.S.-led forces chased the Taliban from power in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Foreign troops have killed more than 120 civilians in Afghanistan in recent months, according to the Afghan government and residents.
The deaths have sparked street protests calling for President Hamid Karzai’s resignation and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. U.S. forces make up the bulk of the more than 50,000 foreign troops operating in the country.
Faced with resurgent Taliban attacks, growing frustration over corruption and lack of economic development, Karzai has warned that civilian deaths would have dangerous consequences for his government and the troops.
Nearly 6,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan over the past 17 months. About 1,500 of them have been civilians.
Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR