At a time of rising public outrage over civilian casualties, Western troops killed three Afghan children and wounded seven other noncombatants in an errant artillery strike Monday, military officials said.
The latest instance of civilian deaths and injuries could hardly have occurred at a more sensitive time. The United Nations, the Afghan government and the American military are investigating allegations that as many as 90 civilians, including 60 children, were killed Aug. 22 in a U.S.-led airstrike in western Afghanistan. U.S. military officials have said they believe that 25 militants and five civilians died in that raid in Herat province.
The steady drumbeat of casualty reports has eroded the popularity of the already beleaguered government of President Hamid Karzai, who has demanded that Western troops exercise greater caution when operating in civilian areas. After the Herat incident, Karzai demanded a wide-ranging review of Western combat operations.
Fueling Afghan anger, two other children and a man were killed in a separate incident Monday involving foreign troops near Kabul, the capital, according to local authorities, but the circumstances of those deaths were less clear.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, acknowledged the deaths of three children in the eastern province of Paktika without specifying the nationality of the troops involved. However, nearly all foreign forces in that area, near the border with Pakistan, are American.
In an unusually swift and unequivocal statement, Western officials accepted responsibility for the casualties, which they said came after insurgents fired on a coalition patrol.
The Western troops called in artillery support in response but tried to halt the strike when they saw that the initial rounds were hitting too close to what appeared to be a civilian compound. However, another round had already been fired by the time the alarm was raised, the military said.
The three dead children and seven injured civilians were found inside the compound, the ISAF statement said, adding that the coalition “deeply regrets this accident.”
Frustration has been mounting on both sides over the deaths of noncombatants, about 500 of whom have been killed by foreign troops this year, according to the Afghan government. Even more civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks, mainly suicide bombings aimed at coalition troops or Afghan police.
Western military officials do not keep a tally of their own but indirectly blame insurgents for the vast majority of such casualties. They say Taliban fighters deliberately use civilians as cover, drawing Western firepower onto noncombatants to reap propaganda gains.
NATO has struggled as well to counter what it says are sometimes-exaggerated casualty claims by local authorities who are intimidated by the Taliban, or by impoverished families seeking to claim compensation from the government.
Although the incident in Paktika province appeared to be a clear-cut case of a targeting error by Western forces, other cases are murkier. In the other fatal incident reported Monday, local authorities said troops raided a home on the capital’s outskirts, apparently searching for a man and his two grown sons.
The U.S. military denied any knowledge of the incident. But an angry crowd gathered outside the home afterward, and Afghan TV showed the corpses of two children and reported that a woman, apparently their mother, was injured. The man was killed.
More controversy was likely to erupt in coming days, after the American military announced that fighting in southern Afghanistan had killed more than 200 suspected Taliban fighters in the last week. But ISAF warned late Friday that it had received intelligence information that false or inflated claims of civilian casualties were going to be made about those clashes in Helmand province.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.