KABUL — NATO jets mistakenly killed at least 21 people in central Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Monday, the deadliest attack on civilians in six months. The strike prompted a sharp rebuke from the Afghan government as it struggles to win public backing for a major military offensive against the Taliban in south.
Also Monday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a community meeting in eastern Afghanistan, killing 15 civilians including a prominent tribal leader widely criticized for failing to prevent Osama bin Laden's escape at Tora Bora after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The civilian deaths occurred as 15,000 NATO, U.S. and Afghan soldiers were in their 10th day of fighting insurgents in the southern town of Marjah in Helmand province. The mission is to rout the Taliban, set up a local government and rush in aid to win public support.
The alliance said its planes fired on what was thought to be a group of insurgents in Uruzgan province on their way to attack NATO and Afghan forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the airstrike hit three minibuses, which were traveling on a major road near Uruzgan's border with Day Kundi province.
Although the airstrike was not related to the Marjah offensive, civilian casualties undermine NATO's goal of turning back the Taliban and winning the confidence of the Afghan people – one of the main objectives of the southern operation.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called on NATO to do more to protect civilians during stepped-up military operations, and the Afghan Cabinet strongly condemned the airstrike.
In recent months, NATO has limited airstrikes and tightened rules of engagement on the battlefield to try to protect the Afghan people and win their loyalty from the Taliban.
"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," top NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in a written apology after Sunday's strike. "We will redouble our effort to regain that trust."
It was the second time in nine days that NATO has apologized for killing civilians. On Feb. 14, two U.S. rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah, killing 12 people, including six children. According to NATO, at least 16 civilians have been killed so far during the offensive; human rights groups say the figure is at least 19.
Bashary said investigators had recovered 21 bodies from the Uruzgan airstrike and that two other people were missing.
The Afghan Cabinet reported a higher death toll, saying 27 civilians were killed, including four women and a child, and 12 other people were injured. The ministers urged NATO to "closely coordinate and exercise maximum care before conducting any military operation" to avoid further civilian casualties.
The toll was the highest involving civilians since last September, when U.S. pilots bombed two hijacked fuel tankers in a German-ordered airstrike near the northern town of Kunduz. German officials, citing a classified NATO report, say up to 142 people are believed to have died or been injured. Afghan leaders estimated that 30 to 40 civilians were killed.
Monday's suicide bombing occurred outside Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Police Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said a militant attacked tribal elders and government workers who were meeting with a few hundred Afghan refugees to discuss the distribution of land.
Among those killed was Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, better known as Haji Zaman, one of the two principal Afghan warlords who went after bin Laden after the Taliban fled Kabul in 2001.
"When we came to the site, 14 bodies were lying on the spot and I learned that tribal elder Mohammad Zaman was also among the dead," said eyewitness Malik Ahmad. "Twenty people were wounded including the head of the Nangarhar refugees department."
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in November 2009 said U.S. special operations forces relied on Zaman, described as a "wealthy drug smuggler" whom the U.S. had coaxed back from France, and fellow warlord Hazrat Ali.
"Together, they fielded a force of about 2,000 men, but there were questions from the outset about the competence and loyalties of the fighters," the report said. "The two warlords and their men distrusted each other and both groups appeared to distrust their American allies."
On Dec. 11, 2001, Zaman told the senior U.S. military officer at Tora Bora that al-Qaida fighters wanted to surrender, but needed a cease-fire to allow them to get down from the mountains, the report said. That turned out to be a ruse, and bin Laden and hundreds of his followers escaped.
In the southern offensive in Marjah, fighting was less intense on Monday than in previous days.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the number of displaced residents has more than doubled during the past four days. More than 3,700 families, or an estimated 22,000 people, from Marjah and surrounding areas have registered in Helmand's capital of Lashkar Gah 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Marjah, the U.N. said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had evacuated 28 sick and injured civilians to treatment facilities outside the area since the offensive began on Feb. 13.
Ajmal Samadi, a spokesman for the Afghan Rights Monitor in Kabul, said food prices had soared.
"The situation is grim," Samadi said. "People are very concerned. Markets are closed. Shops are closed. Pharmacies are closed. No health facilities are functioning properly."
A deputy district chief, appointed to shepherd new governance into the town after years of Taliban control. made his first trip to Marjah on Monday. He handed out turbans to elders in a sign of respect.
Abdul Zahir Aryan toured the main market, then sat down at a gas station with 40 to 50 elders, who told him they wanted to see the main market reopened and that they remained concerned about security because of ongoing fighting in many neighborhoods, said Rory Donohoe, the head of the U.S. development agency for Helmand province.
Associated Press Writers Heidi Vogt, Rahim Faiez and Tini Tran in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.