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ISAF apologises for Afghan civilian deaths

30 may 2011, 17:30
Foreign forces in Afghanistan apologised Monday for the deaths of nine Afghan civilians after President Hamid Karzai criticised an air strike which he and officials said killed 14, including children, AFP reports.

The statement said that the strike in the southern province of Helmand was carried out Saturday after insurgents who had earlier killed a patrolling marine hid in a compound and carried on firing.

The compound hit by the air strike was home to civilians. Local officials said that five girls, seven boys and two women were among those killed by international forces.

"I want to offer my sincere apologies for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident in Now Zad District, Helmand province, that occurred on 28 May," said a statement from Major General John Toolan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander for the southwest region of Afghanistan.

He stressed it was the coalition's "top priority" to avoid civilian casualties, adding that a full investigation was under way.

"While I know there is no price on human life, we will ensure that we make amends with the families in accordance with Afghan culture," Toolan added.

The apology came after Karzai's office issued what it said was a "last warning" to US and NATO-led troops over civilian casualties following Saturday's incident, which it described as a "great mistake."

In response, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that "we share and take very seriously" Karzai's concerns.

Civilian deaths in international military operations are a highly sensitive topic in Afghanistan, frequently sparking angry public demonstrations and vocal condemnations from Karzai.

Footage and pictures from Helmand showed turbaned men carrying the bodies of children in the aftermath of Saturday's incident.

Aslam, a local elder of Nawzad district, told AFP he "lost 12 relatives while 10 others including children were injured" in the air strike.

He said some shots were fired at ISAF helicopters which flew into the area, adding that the choppers returned after 10 to 20 minutes and fired rockets, killing the "innocent civilians".

Separately, the governor of Nuristan on Sunday told AFP that 18 civilians and 20 police had been killed by "friendly fire" during US-led air strikes against insurgents in his troubled northeastern province.

Nuristan was the scene of heavy battles last week between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. The police and civilians were targeted Wednesday after they were mistaken for militants, Jamaluddin Badr said.

ISAF has said it is sending a fact-finding team to the region but that initial reporting shows no sign of civilian casualties there.

The United Nations says Afghan civilian deaths in the war increased 15 percent to a record high of 2,777 last year. More than three-quarters of the dead were killed in violence blamed on insurgents.

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