KABUL Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned on Thursday an air strike by NATO-led forces which he said killed 10 election campaign workers, although U.S. officials maintained it was aimed at an Islamist leader.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign forces hunting militants have caused major tension between Karzai and his Western allies. The latest incident came at a bad time as Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed for unannounced talks.
Gates's arrival was also overshadowed by renewed worries about corruption, one of Washington's biggest concerns in Afghanistan, after two officials from the country's top private bank left their positions amid allegations of graft.
Gates flew into the Afghan capital from Iraq, where he attended ceremonies to mark the end of U.S. combat operations.
That milestone has thrown the U.S. military focus back onto Afghanistan, where violence has reached its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, most of them American.
Speaking at a joint news conference, Gates and Karzai appeared to disagree over the air strike in northern Takhar province but the Afghan leader used milder language than in an earlier statement when he attacked the strike.
Those killed worked for a candidate in Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary elections, Karzai said. U.S. officials, including Gates, said the strike was aimed at insurgents from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
"The nature of the operation and the presence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's personalities or activists have to be determined. But we do know that the parliamentary candidate is wounded and 10 were killed," Karzai said.
Gates said he knew little about the incident other than that an IMU leader was targeted and killed, and that the IMU had been responsible for attacks across Afghanistan, including in Kabul.
"This is the first that I had heard that civilians may have been killed and we will certainly look into that," said Gates, who also met General David Petraeus, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and will visit U.S. troops.
Thursday's attack happened in the Rostaq district of Takhar, a province in the north near Tajikistan that has been relatively peaceful, unlike Taliban strongholds in the south and east. Karzai identified the candidate as Abdul Wahid.
STRIKES "NOT EFFECTIVE"
A strongly worded statement released earlier by the presidential palace said "... air bombardments in the villages of Afghanistan will only end up killing civilians and will not be effective in the fight against terrorism."
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said coalition forces had conducted an air strike against a senior IMU member that hit one vehicle in a six-car convoy and that eight to 12 insurgents had been killed or wounded.
"We're aware of the allegations that this strike caused civilian casualties and we'll do our best to get to the bottom of the accusations," the statement quoted U.S. Marine Corps Major General David Garza as saying.
Increased violence and fears of corruption are threatening the parliamentary poll, with four candidates and up to 13 campaign workers and supporters killed in recent weeks.
Corruption is a common complaint among Afghans. Washington fears it boosts the Taliban-led insurgency and complicates efforts to strengthen central government control so U.S. and other foreign troops can begin withdrawing.
Gates and Karzai also discussed efforts to stamp out graft. He said Karzai, who won a fraud-marred presidential vote last year, acknowledged corruption sapped Afghanistan's resources and diminished support for the government.
"I want to note that the U.S. must make sure that American dollars and other foreign assistance do not fuel corruption," Gates said, adding that new controls would be put in place.
"And we fully support the Afghan government in its own efforts to address corruption," he said, describing Washington's relationship with Karzai as good and forthright.
The election is seen as a crucial test of stability for Afghanistan and for the U.S.-led Afghan war before President Barack Obama's strategy review in December.
Foreign military deaths in Afghanistan have reached record levels this year, with at least 490 killed so far compared with 521 in all of 2009. Two more U.S. troops were killed in attacks in the east and south on Thursday, ISAF said.
Last month, a U.N. report said civilian casualties had risen by 31 percent in the first six months of 2010, more than three-quarters of them caused by insurgents. Those caused by "pro-government forces" dropped dramatically, mainly because of a reduction in those caused by aerial strikes.
(Additional reporting by Ahmad Elham in Talooqan and Jonathon Burch in Kabul; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by David Stamp)