KABUL (Reuters) - The NATO-led force in Afghanistan said Thursday it had accidentally killed a number of civilians in an air strike earlier this week and was also investigating allegations a separate air raid killed two civilians the previous day.
The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign troops is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, and has soured the feelings of many ordinary Afghans toward foreign forces.
Eleven people, including four insurgents, were killed in the air strike Tuesday night in the Shamal district of eastern Khost province, prompting angry street protests, said police chief Sarder Zazai.
A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)said the air strike had killed “several” insurgents but that “a number of associated family members” had also been accidentally killed.
“At the time it was unknown to the security forces that those insurgents were operating among women and children,” The ISAF spokesman said, adding it was unclear how many insurgents and civilians had been killed.
The deaths sparked a protest by several hundred Afghans, who burned an unknown effigy, in Sayed Khel village in the Shamal district Thursday.
“I ask(Afghan President Hamid) Karzai to pull out these American and NATO(troops) from our country if you can. If Karzai does not listen to our request, we will call for jihad against America,” said Haji Mirbaz Khan, the village leader.
The ISAF spokesman said an Afghan-led security force had been pursuing several insurgents from the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied to the Taliban, and became engaged in a firefight before calling in the air strike.
Separately, ISAF said it was looking into allegations by Afghan residents one of its air strikes had killed two young shepherds in Ghazni, a restive province southwest of Kabul.
ISAF said it had carried out an air raid in Khogyani district in Ghazni but that only one insurgent had been killed who had been planting a bomb.
“Although operational reporting indicates that only the insurgent targeted was killed, ISAF takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and, in conjunction with the Afghan government, makes every effort to address them,” ISAF said in a statement.
It said it had launched an investigation into the incident together with the Afghan Interior Ministry.
Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday to protest about the deaths of the two young shepherds they said were killed by foreign forces.
As violence has spread across the country, casualties have risen, and the United Nations said May was the deadliest month for civilians since they began keeping records four years earlier.
Earlier this year, two NATO helicopters gunned down nine Afghan boys as they collected firewood in a volatile province in northeastern Afghanistan.
The incident prompted a sharp rebuke from Karzai and a rare and candid apology by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces General David Petraeus. U.S. President Barack Obama also expressed “deep regret” over the killings.
However, the United Nations has also said insurgents are to blame for the vast majority of civilian deaths. In May, more than 80 percent of the 301 civilian deaths were caused by militants, it said.
In another incident, ISAF said one of its helicopters had crashed in Parwan province, north of the Afghan capital, on Thursday. All crew members had been recovered without injuries, it said.
ISAF said it was investigating the cause of the crash but initial reporting showed their was “no enemy activity in the area at the time of the incident.”
Reporting by Jonathon Burch, Hamid Shalizi, Michelle Nichols in Kabul and Elyas Wahdat in Khost