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Afghan leader orders plan to control foreign troops

KABUL, June 4 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered his government to begin work on plans to control operations by foreign troops in a bid to stop rising numbers of civilian casualties, his office said on Thursday.

The rising civilian death toll as Afghan and foreign troops battle a growing Taliban insurgency has become a politically explosive issue, eroding support for Karzai’s government, its foreign backers and coalition troops.

Some 2,000 civilians were killed last year in violence related to the insurgency, the U.N. and aid agencies say.

Public anger rose when U.S. air strikes hit homes full of women and children during a battle with the Taliban in western Afghanistan early last month.

Karzai says 140 civilians died in those strikes, although the U.S. military disputes that number. The Afghan president has since demanded that foreign forces halt air strikes in his country but that was rebuffed by U.S. officials.

A draft plan seeking to coordinate strikes by foreign forces more closely with the Afghan government would be released soon, said Karzai’s chief spokesman Humayoun Hamidzada.

“On the basis of the president’s instruction, the foreign and defence ministries and other security organs are seriously working on a plan as to how to deal with this issue,” he said.

Rising civilian casualties by foreign troops, highlighted by the May 4 strikes in western Farah province, prompted Karzai to seek tighter regulation of foreign troops, Hamidzada said.

The U.S. military has acknowledged 20-35 civilians were among 80-95 people killed, most of them Taliban fighters who used the civilians as human shields.[ID:nN03132644]

Hamidzada said the draft plan would seek to establish a framework within which such operations could be conducted.

Asked if the plan would include provisions for foreign troops to be prosecuted and punished under Afghan law, Hamidzada said “any possibility will be used for protecting the life and property of Afghanistan’s people and protection of civilians”.

The lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament last month demanded legal restrictions on foreign troops to prevent further civilian deaths, including the prosecution of foreign troops under Afghan law.

Some lawmakers have warned that failure to curb the foreign troops and stop civilian deaths would lead to an uprising against the Western soldiers, whose numbers have risen to about 80,000.

Others say the issue is also undermining the legitimacy of Karzai’s government and risked discouraging ordinary Afghans from voting in August’s key presidential election.

On Wednesday, a U.S. military official said an initial military investigation had uncovered mistakes in the Farah air strikes and that the number of civilian deaths could have been reduced if air crews and ground troops had followed strict rules.

Another official said those mistakes appeared to be linked to the choice of weapons used.

U.S. military leaders have said repeatedly this week that they understood the issue of civilian casualties risked losing them the support of the Afghan people and that they would seek to minimise such incidents.

Washington is sending an extra 17,000 soldiers to Afghanistan this year in a bid to turn the tide of a war senior U.S. officials have acknowledged they are not winning.

For more stories on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan click [ID:nSP102615] Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani