KABUL (Reuters) - The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan apologized on Friday for killing civilians, including women and children gathering for a wedding, in an air strike this week that has stoked Afghan anger against foreign forces in the country.
NATO previously said the coalition and Afghan forces called for the air strike after they came under fire during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said 18 civilians were killed.
“We didn’t see the civilians. As the force approached the building, they were taken under fire. A number of forces, and this was a joint Afghan and U.S. force, they were taken under fire, a hand grenade was thrown, three of our people were wounded,” General John Allen said, according to a transcript released by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
He said the joint force called for the people shooting from the building to come out and “then the situation became more grave and innocent people were killed”.
“We’re investigating the procedures that were used but also the numbers of individuals who were killed and wounded. I offered my apologies to the Afghan people who were present today, to the governor and assured them we would investigate thoroughly,” he said.
Allen had flown into the southeastern province where the civilians were killed in the air strike early on Wednesday.
The coalition said earlier that it had killed a number of insurgents in the operation in Logar. But angry villagers said there were no Taliban in the two house that were destroyed.
The repeated deaths of civilians in U.S.-led operations has fuelled resentment against foreign forces and become a rallying cause for the Taliban fighting to throw them out of the country.
Karzai, who cut short a trip to China following the killings, said the NATO strike had no justification.
Last month, Karzai said a strategic pact signed with the United States to govern future ties after the withdrawal of most foreign combat forces in 2014 was at risk of becoming “meaningless” if Afghans did not feel safe.
He said dozens of civilians had died in air strikes in several provinces including Logar again, and the southern Taliban stronghold of Helmand.
The U.S.-led coalition, preparing to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, has stepped up operations against the Taliban in the south and east of the country.
Allen said the coalition would provide compensation to the families of the victims and promised an investigation into the procedures used in the operation.
“I have a family of my own and I see the faces of my own children and I know that no apology can bring back the life of the children or the people who perished in this tragedy and this accident,” he said.
Editing by Alison Williams