NATO says 4 killed in Afghanistan were civilians, not ‘known insurgents’

Western military officials on Wednesday acknowledged a case of mistaken identity in the killings of four civilians in eastern Afghanistan, the second such lethal episode in just over a week.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had initially described two of the four occupants of a car that was fired on by troops in Khowst province Monday night as “known insurgents,” and the other two as their associates.

The soldiers, whose nationality was not disclosed, opened fire after the vehicle accelerated toward a military convoy, alliance officials said.

Family members and local officials had insisted that the group, which included three teenage boys, was returning home from a sporting event. They said none of the car’s occupants had links to the insurgency — and that, in fact, one was a police officer.

And they vehemently expressed disbelief that the four, none of whom was armed, had demonstrated any hostile intent toward the Western troops.

The Khowst episode came seven days after American troops in Kandahar province, apparently believing themselves under threat of attack, fired on a vehicle approaching a military convoy. It turned out to be a passenger bus, and four Afghans aboard were killed.

NATO said Wednesday that its description of two of the dead in Khowst as insurgents was based on the presence of their fingerprints in a military database. But those indexed in the biometric database include not only captured Taliban fighters, but also members of the Afghan security forces, employees of the coalition and others.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings even before NATO acknowledged its mistake. Karzai, who had a series of sharp exchanges with his Western backers this month, has been harshly critical of civilian deaths caused by foreign forces.

The latest deaths are likely to add to a growing furor over civilian casualties, which have steadily increased as the 8-year-old conflict has dragged on. Even though nearly three-quarters of such deaths are caused by insurgents, many Afghans think Western troops should be held to a higher standard.

More than 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed in war-related violence in 2009, according to United Nations figures.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, has declared the safeguarding of civilians a top priority because the wrongful deaths of noncombatants tend to fuel support for the insurgency.

However, with the tempo of fighting increasing, such episodes are proving difficult to avoid. With an infusion of 30,000 additional U.S. troops this year and a major military operation expected during the spring and summer in Kandahar province, the issue has taken on greater urgency.

The deaths in Khowst and Kandahar also illustrated the potential for fatal error in NATO’s so-called escalation of force procedures, which call for live fire to be employed only as a last resort. Military officials said that in both instances troops tried to warn the vehicles away with flashing lights and warning shots.

However, witnesses aboard the Kandahar bus said they received no such warning, and provincial officials in Khowst also questioned whether the car carrying the four civilians had a chance to stop.

“We heard from people in the area that coalition forces opened fire without any signal,” said Dawood Shah, a member of Khowst’s provincial council.

In response to the recent incidents, NATO said it would be dispatching training teams across Afghanistan to work with troops and commanders to stem accidental civilian deaths.

“We sincerely regret this tragic loss of life,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, the coalition’s deputy chief of staff for joint operations. “Commanders at all levels are increasing efforts to protect the Afghan people affected by our operations.”

The Khowst shooting remained under investigation, NATO said.