KABUL — The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Thursday that its forces had inadvertently killed an unspecified number of women and children during a fight with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan this week, adding that it is also investigating a separate allegation of civilian casualties in the same region.
The two incidents, in Khost and Ghazni provinces, could pose a test for President Hamid Karzai, who has called for a halt to NATO airstrikes on Afghan homes and vowed to take “unilateral action” to stop them if they persist. Karzai’s office did not immediately issue a statement on either case.
The first incident involved U.S. and Afghan troops who were pursuing a leader from the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied insurgent group, in the Shamul district of Khost province. According to a NATO statement, the patrol came under fire Wednesday morning from insurgents behind a tree line using rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. The troops called in an airstrike that killed “several” insurgents and “a number of associated family members,” the statement said. “Unknown to the security force, the insurgents were operating among women and children.”
The provincial police chief, Sardar Mohammad Zazai, said that three women and six children were killed, along with four insurgents, including the commander, Qamar Ali. A spokesman for the governor said an Afghan team has been dispatched to investigate the deaths, which occurred around dawn.
The NATO coalition is also investigating claims by residents that two shepherds were killed by a separate airstrike in Ghazni province. According to its statement, troops with the International Security Assistance Force watched a man plant a roadside bomb, then called in an airstrike that killed him. “Although operational reporting indicates that only the insurgent targeted was killed, ISAF takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously,” the statement said.
In both cases, the deaths prompted protests by residents and denunciations of foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Karzai has repeatedly brought civilian casualties to the front of his political agenda in Afghanistan. But he has not acted publicly on his threat earlier this year to treat foreign troops as enemies and force NATO to stop airstrikes if civilian casualties continued.
Salahuddin is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.