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McChrystal tries to calm Afghans after air strike

YAQOUBI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan flew on Saturday to the scene of a deadly air strike by his forces, trying to cool anger that threatens his strategy of winning hearts and minds.

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.

The incident was the first in which Western forces are accused of killing large numbers of civilians since U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal took command in June, announcing that protecting Afghans was the centrepiece of a new strategy.

In an unprecedented televised address to the Afghan people, the general said his forces had launched the air strike against what they thought was a Taliban target. He promised to make the outcome of an investigation public.

“As Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people,” he said in the taped address, released in versions dubbed into the two official languages, Dari and Pashtu.

“I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously.”

He later made a brief personal tour of the site in Kunduz, a once-safe northern province where fighters have stepped up attacks and seized control of remote areas, part of an insurgency that is now at its fiercest stage in the 8-year-old war.

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NATO says its targets in the raid were Taliban fighters who had hijacked the fuel trucks, but has acknowledged that some of the victims being treated in hospital are civilians.

In the village of Yaqoubi, a scattering of mud-brick homes near the blast site, residents wept and prayed beside dozens of graves of victims on Saturday, while Taliban fighters with rifles looked on. The militants’ presence was proof of their increasing domination of an area recently under government control.

“We will take revenge. A lot of innocent people were killed here,” one of the Taliban fighters, only his eyes left uncovered by a thick scarf, said at the funeral.

“Every family around here has victims,” said Sahar Gul, a 54-year-old village elder from Yaqoubi. “There are entire families that have been destroyed.”

Village elders said 50 people were buried in Yaqoubi and 70 more in nearby villages, although Afghan officials and the Red Cross say the precise death toll may never be known.

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New orders McChrystal issued in July were supposed to limit civilian casualties by requiring troops to take extra steps before opening fire to ensure non-combatants were not in danger.

McChrystal sent a delegation of NATO officers to meet relatives of victims as part of a fact-finding mission.

At the central hospital in the provincial capital Kunduz, Shaifullah, a boy of 6 or 7 with an arm and a leg bandaged from severe burns, lay in a tiny, foul-smelling hospital room, crammed with beds and swarming with flies.

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“I went to get the fuel with everybody else, and then the bombs fell on us,” the boy told a delegation led by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Greg Smith, head of public affairs for the 103,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Later Smith told one relative: “We regret the loss of life. We express condolences to all members of your village.”

Kunduz province Governor Mohammad Omar said residents had brought the attacks on themselves by allowing fighters into the area. He told Reuters: “Villagers paid a price for helping and sheltering the insurgents.”

The Kunduz area is patrolled by NATO’s 4,000-strong German contingent, who are banned by Berlin from operating in combat zones in other parts of the country. A suicide bomber wounded four German soldiers in a strike on a convoy on Saturday.

German involvement in Friday’s air raid could intensify a debate about the war, which is unpopular back home. Germany holds a general election in three weeks and both major political parties are defending the war to a skeptical public.

The air strike comes at a time when Afghanistan’s politics are in limbo, with allegations of widespread fraud holding up the announcement of results from an August 20 presidential election.

President Hamid Karzai’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, complained on Saturday that data from hundreds of polling stations published on the election commission’s website showed Karzai with impossibly round numbers of votes. In one village, where official results showed every single voter backing him, the president received exactly 500 votes at each of four polling separate stations.

The NATO strike was condemned by several European officials at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Stockholm.

Asked what the bloc could do to improve the situation, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters: “It is difficult to say, but mainly to work with Afghan people and not to bomb them, not only to bomb them.”

Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Kunduz, Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in Kabul and David Brunnstrom in Stockholm; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Mark Trevelyan