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Monday, February 22, 2010

NATO Afghanistan airstrike kills 33 civilians

Afghanistan airstrike kills 33 civiliansA NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan has killed 33 people after an aircraft fired on civilians mistakenly thought to be insurgents, the Afghan government said on Monday.

The incident took place Sunday in Dai Kundi province when three vehicles carrying the civilians were targeted from the air, provincial Governor Sultan Ali Uruzgani told DPA.

The cabinet of ministers chaired by President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack 'in strongest terms possible', it said.

The ministers urged 'the NATO forces to closely coordinate and exercise maximum care before conducting any military operation,' the statement said.

The governor had earlier said that 27 people were killed in the air raid, but Karzai's office later put the death toll to 33 and said that 12 others were injured.

The civilians were coming from the Kejran district of Dai Kundi, and the attack occurred in Zerma, a village near the border with the neighboring province of Uruzgan, he said. The vehicles were en route to the southern province of Kandahar.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said its forces used airborne weapons to target a group of suspected insurgents 'believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF unit,' resulting in 'a number of individuals killed and wounded'.

'After the joint ground force arrived at the scene and found women and children, they transported the wounded to medical treatment facilities,' ISAF said in a statement.

A joint investigation was underway, it said.

The incident happened a day after Karzai appealed to NATO troops to avoid civilian casualties.

'We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives,' US General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, said in the statement Monday.

'I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will re-double our efforts to regain that trust,' he said.

The statement also said that McChrystal apologised to Karzai Sunday night.

Civilian casualties have become the main source of tension between the Afghan government and international military forces. Afghan officials have repeatedly said that such deaths have sapped public support for more than 113,000 foreign troops and the central government.

The palace statement Monday said that such 'mistakes' have been 'a major obstacle for an effective counter-terrorism effort'.

McChrystal has said protecting civilians was a key element of his war efforts against the Taliban, and he ordered NATO troops to restrict the use of airstrikes.

In the southern province of Helmand, Operation Mushtarak, the largest NATO offensive since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 entered its second week with continued Taliban resistance.

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