ASADABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An overnight NATO-led airstrike on a remote Afghan village killed six civilians, including two children, Afghan officials said on Monday, but Western forces said they had targeted armed militants.
Civilian deaths caused by foreign troops hunting the Taliban have become a major cause of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers, and sapped support for the presence of Western forces in the country.
In some cases, U.S. and Western troops have initially disputed reports of civilian casualties, only to later acknowledge them and apologize.
The attack hit a remote district of rugged, heavily forested Kunar province, which borders Pakistan and provides ideal cover for insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
NATO-led forces said they called in air support after tracking a group of hostile fighters to a site where they saw no evidence of a civilian presence.
“Multiple intelligence sources provided positive identification of four to eight insurgents assembled in a known enemy area ... Intelligence intercepts indicated the hostile intent of the enemy to attack,” a statement said.
However, the coalition forces planned to meet with local leaders for a combined investigation of the incident, and regretted “any possible civilian injury,” the statement added.
District police chief Mirza Mohammad said six people had been killed, all civilians, including a 3-year-old girl, a 10 year-old boy and a 40-year-old woman.
Another 16 people, including nine children, were wounded, the youngest a year-old infant. Three houses were destroyed, he said.
“We were having dinner when the attack happened,” village resident Ezatuallah, who uses one name, told Reuters by telephone from Wata Pur district, adding all the dead were civilians.
Kunar’s provincial governor Fazlullah Wahidi also told Reuters civilians had died in the attack without giving figures.
“I am aware of the bombardment and the martyrdom and wounding of civilians,” he said.
Last week five people including a seven-day old baby died during a U.S.-led operation in southeastern Khost province. U.S. forces initially said they had killed four insurgents but later acknowledged the dead were civilians defending their home.
The number of civilians killed in operations by foreign forces fighting a Taliban-led insurgency has steadily climbed, reaching hundreds last year, according to human right groups and the government.
U.S. and NATO commanders say insurgents are still responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, but they have acknowledged that killing civilians has cost the Western troops support.
Violence has surged in recent years with Taliban having managed to extend the size and scope of their attacks.
The hardline Islamist movement was driven out of Kabul by U.S.-backed Afghan fighters in 2001 but is staging a comeback in parts of the south and east.
This comes despite the heavy presence of foreign forces. There are more than 70,000 already on the ground, with 21,000 extra U.S. troops and more than 5,000 soldiers from other NATO countries promised or on their way.
U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban after its leadership refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.
Separately, two Afghan security guards of a construction firm were killed in a roadside bomb attack in the eastern province of Khost on Monday, a provincial official said.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Peter Graff and Jerry Norton