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NATO denies killing civilians in Afghan strike

(Adds further account of strike from U.S. spokeswoman)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Aug 5 (Reuters) - NATO and U.S. forces said they had carried out an air strike in southern Afghanistan, but denied allegations by villagers on Wednesday that the four dead were civilians killed in their sleep.

Angry residents brought the bodies to the provincial capital Kandahar, a heartland of insurgent activity, to show officials. The incident could stir instability two weeks before a presidential election.

Villagers identified the dead as civilians -- three boys and a man from one family killed late on Tuesday.

“They were civilians killed by the air strike while fast asleep,” said Jan Mohammad, a village elder and one of the group who brought the bodies to Kandahar.

U.S. military spokeswoman Captain Elizabeth Mathias said NATO helicopters had struck four militants on motorcycles in a field far from a populated area.

“We had a helicopter intercept four individuals on motorcycles last night. They appeared to be carrying things. The helicopter engaged them with gunfire and rockets,” she said.

“We understand there are reports of civilian casualties. We are investigating those reports. But my operational reporting is of four insurgents engaged in a field.”

Mathias said she had not been briefed on how the helicopter pilots knew those killed were insurgents.

But the pilots, she said, had met the requirement of positive identification of targets as enemies before firing. No Western troops were on the ground in the area at the time of the strike.

IDENTIFICATION

A Reuters correspondent who saw the bodies said two appeared to be teenaged or pre-teen boys. Boys of that age sometimes accompany fighters in Afghanistan. The other two bodies were mutilated beyond recognition.

The reporter was not able to confirm independently the circumstances of their deaths. Afghan support for foreign troops has been eroded by civilian casualties, a source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, imposed greater limits on the use of air strikes. Western troops accuse militants of disguising fighters as civilians to anger public opinion.

A spokesman for the NATO-led force had earlier confirmed that the alliance had conducted an air strike in Kandahar’s Arghandab district overnight and said those killed in the raid were militants. He gave no further details.

The air strike was part of spiralling violence before the Aug. 20 presidential poll, which the Taliban, toppled by U.S. and Afghan-led forces in 2001, have vowed to disrupt.

On Wednesday morning, a roadside bomb killed five civilians in eastern Nangarhar province, the Interior Ministry said. Such bombs are the most lethal tactic used by militants, and frequently kill civilians as well as Western and Afghan troops.

The United Nations said last week 1,013 civilians had been killed between January and June, up from 818 in the same period last year. Insurgents were to blame for 59 percent of those deaths, the United Nations said..

U.S. and NATO forces are pressing on with major operations to secure areas held by the Taliban in opium-producing Helmand province, adjacent to Kandahar. The operations are meant to secure the poll, part of the new U.S. administration’s effort to defeat militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.] (Additional reporting and writing by Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Graff in Kabul; Editing by Golnar Motevalli and Ron Popeski)

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