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EU ministers chide NATO over Afghan attack deaths

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - EU ministers criticized NATO on Saturday for an air strike in Afghanistan that local officials said killed scores of people, many of them civilians.

The attack took place a day before EU foreign ministers met in Stockholm to discuss ways to boost Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and stem an Islamist insurgency.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU presidency, said the EU was open to raising its 1 billion euro ($1.43 billion) aid commitment but wanted Afghanistan to address allegations of fraud in its August 20 presidential election.

Several ministers were sharply critical of Friday’s air strike in Kunduz province, fearing it could undermine the Western effort in the country.

Asked what the EU could do to improve the Afghan situation, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters:

“It is difficult to say, but mainly to work with the Afghan people and not to bomb them, not only to bomb them.”

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called the air strike an “unacceptable catastrophe” while EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Fererro-Waldner said it was “a great tragedy” that should be investigated.

Afghan officials say scores of people were killed, many of them civilians, when a U.S. F-15 fighter jet called in by German troops struck two hijacked fuel trucks before dawn on Friday.

BACKLASH FEAR

NATO commanders hope to avert a backlash over the incident, which happened two months after the new U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, ordered extra precautions be taken to protect civilians before troops can open fire.

Kunduz, which is patrolled by NATO’s 4,000-strong German contingent, had been largely quiet since the Taliban were toppled in 2001 but has recently seen an upsurge in attacks, with fighters seizing control of remote areas.

A German commander approved the air strike and the incident could intensify a debate about the war, which is unpopular back home, three weeks before a German election.

NATO says its targets were Taliban fighters who had hijacked the trucks but has acknowledged some victims were civilians.

In Stockholm, EU ministers stressed the need to be able to work with a new Afghan government untainted by corruption once results of the contested presidential elections become clear.

Bildt said ministers agreed on the need for reinforced economic and political engagement and a better managed aid effort. He said the EU as a whole was already providing around a billion euros of assistance to Afghanistan each year.

“We need to coordinate that better in order to be certain that we get the effect that we need and we are also open to reinforcing that commitment even further,” he said.

At the same time, the EU wanted to see Afghan poll authorities “cleanse the election result of serious fraud.”

“This must be done and it must be allowed to take the time it takes, so that the election result that comes out of this after some considerable period of time is an election result that is broadly credible,” he told a news conference.

President Hamid Karzai’s main opponent Abdullah Abdullah has alleged massive fraud in the election.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who is responsible for disbursing EU aid, said the bloc would work with the new government that emerged, but did not make clear if aid flows would be affected if question marks remained about the credibility of the election process.

Luxembourg’s Asselborn told Reuters ministers agreed poll authorities should redress irregularities by insisting on a second round of voting if the overall result had been affected.

He also said a dubious outcome was an issue for aid.

“I think public assistance going to Afghanistan can only be continued if really we are able to know that it is a democratic elected authority. If it’s not the case it is not easy.”

Additional reporting by Julien Toyer; writing by David Brunnstrom; editing by Myra MacDonald

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