Afghan girl killed by British leaflet drop

LONDON (Reuters) - An Afghan girl died after a box of information leaflets -- dropped by a British military plane and intended to help the local population -- landed on top of her, the Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday.

British soldiers from B Company, 2 Mercian, board a Chinook helicopter on an operation in Malgir, Helmand province, July 27, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The MoD said it had launched an investigation into the incident which occurred three months ago in a rural area of Helmand in southern Afghanistan where British troops are battling Taliban insurgents.

Civilian casualties have become an extremely sensitive issue in Afghanistan, with U.S. commander General Stanley McChyrstal warning that protecting civilians from U.S. and NATO air strikes is essential to getting the upper hand in the conflict.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has also warned any civilian casualties were “dangerous” for the NATO-led mission.

Western forces regularly use leaflet drops to provide information and warnings to local Afghans, as well as to counter Taliban propaganda.

The girl died after being hit on June 27 by the box of leaflets, which were being regularly distributed in the run-up to presidential elections held in August.

“Sadly one of the boxes failed to fully open and on landing caused serious injuries to an Afghan child,” a Royal Air Force spokesman said in a statement.

“The child was treated at the local medical facility in Kandahar where despite the best efforts of staff she died as a result of her injuries.”

The MoD said it was believed to be the first time a civilian had been killed by such an airdrop of leaflets.

Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand. Some 40 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last two months and 218 have died there since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, a greater death toll than during the Iraq war.

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Louise Ireland