5 Afghan soldiers killed in bombing by NATO helicopter

A British soldier talks to children in Helmand. The British will leave the province's Sangin area this year.
A British soldier talks to children in Helmand. The British will leave the province's Sangin area this year. (Getty)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

KABUL -- Afghan soldiers lying in wait for insurgents in eastern Afghanistan were bombed by a NATO helicopter Wednesday in a deadly miscommunication that outraged the Afghan military.

Five of the soldiers, on an ambush operation before dawn in the Andar district of Ghazni province, were killed in the errant airstrike, and two were wounded. The "friendly fire" killings touched a raw nerve in the Afghan Defense Ministry, which has had to deal with similar incidents in the past.

"Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened, but we hope this would be the last one," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman.

Also Wednesday, Britain's defense secretary announced that British troops would leave some of Afghanistan's most violent ground this year, handing over the Sangin region of Helmand province to the U.S. Marines. British troops have faced treacherous conditions there: About 100 British soldiers have died in the area, nearly a third of all British fatalities during the war.

The withdrawal would reorganize forces in Helmand and consolidate the British presence in the center of the province, one of the most crucial for the NATO coalition. The first wave of President Obama's 30,000 additional troops deployed to Helmand, where progress has been slower than expected in insurgent strongholds such as Marja. In London, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told Parliament: "The result will be a coherent and equitable division of the main populated areas of Helmand."

The British government approved a temporary boost in forces, sending 300 troops to Afghanistan, which puts the British total near 10,000. Britain has the second-highest number of troops in Afghanistan, after the United States.

The friendly-fire killings were the first of their kind since Gen. David H. Petraeus took command of NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan this week. Such inadvertent deaths, primarily of Afghan civilians, were a regular thorn for Petraeus's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who restricted the use of airpower.

Such mistakes complicate what has long been central to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan: building up the Afghan forces so that they can eventually take over security duties. A NATO spokesman apologized on Petraeus's behalf Wednesday to the families of the slain soldiers.

"This loss of life is tragic," Navy Capt. Jane Campbell said in a statement. "We work extremely hard to coordinate and synchronize our operations, and we deeply regret the loss of lives from our Afghan partners."

NATO spokesman Josef Blotz said at a news conference in Kabul that the reason for the mistaken airstrike was "perhaps a coordination issue," the Associated Press reported. "We were obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area."

Military officials said there was a NATO assessment team in Ghazni that was investigating the incident. "We don't know a lot of the circumstances behind this," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.

Insurgents killed three NATO troops in a bombing in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, military officials said.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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