Afghanistan

Officials: At least 17 Afghan civilians killed in NATO airstrike

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Kandahar, Afghanistan_(dpa) _ Afghan villagers brought the bodies of 17 civilians, most of them children, to a provincial governor's office in southern Afghanistan and blamed NATO airstrikes for the deaths, officials said Friday.

Afghan officials confirmed that Afghan army and NATO aircraft engaged a group of Taliban militants Thursday in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province, resulting in the deaths of several Taliban militants.

The same day, villagers in the district's Loy Bagh area, brought the bodies of 17 civilians, including 13 children, and placed them before the governor's office, said Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the provincial governor.

"It is not yet confirmed if the civilians were killed in aerial bombardments or Taliban's rocket attacks or some other kinds of blasts," Ahmadi said, adding that the government was investigating the incident.

Haji Abdul Manan, a local elder from the Nad Ali district, said by phone that at least 27 people were killed in the airstrike and the rest of the bodies were still under rubble.

Assadullah Shirzad, a provincial spokesman, said Thursday's operation resulted in some civilian casualties and the deaths of several Taliban.

"We know that there were some civilian casualties, but at the moment, we can't confirm the number," he said.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was aware of an incident involving its aircraft in the district but could not confirm any civilian killings.

"This incident is being investigated, and at this time, we are unable to confirm any civilian casualties," the ISAF said in a statement.

Civilian casualties have become a sensitive issue between the Afghan government and foreign militaries in Afghanistan, which were deployed there after the ouster of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime by a US-led invasion in late 2001.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered a review of foreign military operations after an airstrike in the Shindand district of the western province of Herat on August 22, which killed more than 90 civilians, mostly children.

Afghanistan's defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, said at a news conference last week that NATO officials agreed at a meeting in Budapest earlier this month that the alliance would be modest in using its air power to avoid civilian deaths during anti-insurgent operations.

Back to Helmand, there have been several clashes between Afghan and Taliban insurgents in the province this week. Afghan officials claimed to have killed more than 200 militants in the past week.

Most of the militants, who had massed around the provincial capital to attack the city, were killed in NATO airstrikes.

Provincial officials said they believe hundreds of foreign fighters have poured into the province recently to back indigenous militants in their insurgency.

More than 4,000 people - mostly insurgents, but including at least 1,500 civilians - have been killed in the Afghan conflict so far this year, according to figures provided by military sources. dpa np jp fp ls

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