In the most lethal friendly-fire incident in more than a year, Afghan authorities said coalition forces accidentally bombed an Afghan army checkpoint Wednesday, killing nine soldiers and injuring three.
U.S. military officials acknowledged in a statement that American troops “may have mistakenly killed or injured” Afghan soldiers in Khowst province, southeast of the capital, Kabul. The incident is under investigation, said Lt. Cmdr. Walter Matthews, a spokesman.
The airstrike took place before dawn as a U.S. convoy was returning to base from a nighttime mission. The American statement suggested that the convoy had previously come under fire, saying it was “involved in multiple engagements.”
Friendly-fire incidents involving Afghan and Western forces are relatively rare. Often, darkness is a contributing factor.
Sixteen months ago, U.S. troops on an overnight operation encountered an Afghan police patrol, which mistook them for Taliban fighters. Seven Afghan police officers were killed in the resulting firefight, the last incident with such a high death toll.
Twice in the last month, Afghan police fired on American troops in apparently deliberate attacks that left two soldiers dead. Insurgents are believed to have infiltrated some Afghan police units.
Mindful of tensions and mistrust that arise from such incidents, Western commanders have worked to improve coordination between the armies. American troops have the lead role in training Afghan security forces.
The circumstances of Wednesday’s strike suggest that U.S. troops might have been unaware of the presence of the Afghan army checkpoint, which had been in place on the main highway in the area for 10 days, according to Arsallah Jamal, the governor of Khowst. He said Afghan soldiers had done nothing to provoke the attack.
“One thing is very clear: The [Afghan troops] did not fire at the coalition forces,” he said. “They tried to flash their vehicles’ lights to show they were friendly forces, but unfortunately this did not work.”
Jamal said he had received a condolence call from a ranking U.S. military official and had been told that a U.S. military delegation would carry out a thorough investigation. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a pure accident, a technical mistake,” he said.
The nine deaths were confirmed by Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry. A spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, said the airstrike took place about 2 a.m. in the Sayed Kheil district.
Elsewhere, U.S. forces said Wednesday that a Taliban leader, Mullah Ghafar, was killed in an airstrike Monday in Afghanistan’s insurgent-ridden Helmand province. Most regular Western troops in the province are British, but U.S. Special Forces often aid in tracking and targeting senior Taliban figures.
The U.S. military said Ghafar was identified as he was getting into a vehicle, which was then struck. He was responsible for a number of attacks on Western forces in the south, the military said.
U.S. officials also reported that Sharif Agha, a Taliban commander suspected of masterminding suicide attacks and roadside bombings in the south, was killed Tuesday in Oruzgan province.
Oruzgan, which borders the volatile provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent days.
Local authorities said two days of clashes had left 35 insurgents and three Afghan police officers dead. Western military officials later said Afghan and coalition forces had killed 55 militants Tuesday after being attacked by a large group of insurgents.
Also on Wednesday, three members of the U.S.-led coalition were killed by a roadside bomb in western Afghanistan. A coalition announcement gave few details, Associated Press said.