KABUL (Reuters) - Air strikes by the NATO-led force in Afghanistan accidentally killed at least three Afghan police in the country’s north and a woman and two children in the west, officials said on Saturday.
Sensitivities about civilian casualties and “friendly fire” incidents have been running high as violence spreads across Afghanistan, reaching its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.
With military deaths also reaching record levels, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said four of its troops had been killed in attacks the south, the heartland of the Taliban, on Friday and Saturday.
Civilian casualties have been a major irritant between Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan, leading to a major falling-out last year.
Tactical directives were tightened twice in the past year as a result, as U.S. and NATO commanders sought to limit the damaging fallout from such incidents. The directives laid down tight rules governing the use of air strikes and home searches.
ISAF said Afghan security forces came under fire from insurgents in multiple locations in Jawzjan province on Friday and that the Afghan forces had requested air support.
Two helicopters then fired a Hellfire missile and 30 mm rounds at the insurgents, it said.
“During a subsequent battle-damage assessment, it was discovered three Afghan National Police were accidentally killed and several more wounded during the air weapons team engagement,” ISAF said in a statement.
“International Security Assistance Force officials offer their sincere condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those fallen service members,” it said.
Mohammad Rahimi, a district chief from Darz Aab in Jawzjan, said Afghan forces asked for NATO help when they were attacked by about 400 Taliban fighters. He said four police were killed, as well as at least 10 civilians caught in crossfire.
“NATO’s aircrafts bombed where our troops were without coordinating with us, killing four policemen and wounding 13 others,” he said.
In western Farah province, Afghan and ISAF forces hunting a Taliban fighter followed a vehicle carrying several armed insurgents to a compound in a remote district. Six insurgents were killed in an ensuing gunbattle and an air strike was called in, which hit the vehicle they had been driving in.
ISAF said the vehicle, which may have been full of home-made explosives, blew up and that a woman and two children were later found dead at the scene.
“We deeply regret what happened on yesterday’s mission,” said U.S. Army Colonel Rafael Torres, a senior ISAF spokesman.
U.S. General David Petraeus, the new commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has stressed that reducing such casualties and protecting Afghans were his priorities.
A United Nations report has found that civilian casualties increased by 31 percent in the first six months of 2010, more than three-quarters of them blamed on insurgents. Five civilians were killed by a roadside bomb, the insurgents’ most effective weapon, in the north on Saturday, ISAF said.
The number attributed to foreign forces fell to 12 percent of the total from 30 percent in the same period a year ago, the U.N. report found, due mainly to a dramatic drop in the number caused by aerial attacks.
The casualties have grown as the insurgency spreads out of traditional Taliban strongholds in the south and east into the north and west despite the presence of more than 140,000 troops.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Alex Richardson