KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO's top commander in Afghanistan apologized Wednesday for the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys and ordered attack helicopter crews to be briefed again on his directive for preventing civilian deaths.
Civilian casualties have long been a source of friction between the U.S.-led international force and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The president condemned the deaths, saying the victims were "innocent children who were collecting firewood for their families during this cold winter."
"Is this the way to fight terrorism and maintain stability in Afghanistan?" Karzai asked in a statement Wednesday. He said NATO should focus more on "terrorist sanctuaries" – a phrase he typically uses when referring to Taliban havens in neighboring Pakistan.
The incident on Tuesday in the Pech valley area of Kunar province came less than two weeks after tribal elders there claimed NATO forces killed more than 50 civilians in recent air and ground strikes. The coalition denied that claim, saying video showed troops targeting and killing dozens of insurgents. It said a subsequent investigation yielded no evidence that civilians had been killed. An Afghan government investigation, however, maintained that 65 civilians died in coalition operations in a remote part of the province.
Several hundred villagers in the area protested for four hours Wednesday against coalition strikes. Demonstrators chanted "Death to America" and "Death to the spies," a reference to what they said was bad intelligence given to helicopter weapons teams, said Noorullah Noori, a member of the local development council in Manogai district.
He said four of the nine boys killed were 7 years old, three were 8, one was 9 years old and one was 12. One child was also wounded, he said.
He said the children were gathering wood under a tree in the mountains about near a village in the district.
"I myself was involved in the burial," Noori said. "Yesterday we buried them."
Civilians are increasingly the victims of the escalating Afghan war, particular from planted bombs on roads and in markets. A recent United Nations report said it documented 2,412 conflict-related civilian casualties in the first 10 months of 2010. More than three-quarters of them were caused by militant activity, a 25 percent increase from the same period in 2009, the report said. At the same time, civilian casualties attributed to pro-government forces decreased.
NATO said there apparently was miscommunication in passing information to coalition helicopters about the location of militants firing on Forward Operating Base Blessing.
"We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions," said Gen. David. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan. "These deaths should have never happened and I will personally apologize to President Karzai."
Petraeus said the accidental killings were particularly distressing because he recently directed his commanders to review NATO directions intended to reduce civilian casualties to the "absolute minimum." He said he has ordered all NATO leaders and members of coalition attack helicopter crews to be re-briefed on the tactical directive to emphasize the need to be sure "we protect the lives of innocent Afghans as we pursue a ruthless enemy."
He said that NATO "accepts full responsibility for this tragedy and will continue to thoroughly investigate this incident to understand why this happened and try to prevent this from happening in the future."
"Should the facts of the investigation warrant it, appropriate action, include disciplinary action if necessary, will be taken," he added.
Karzai has repeatedly called on NATO to do more to protect civilians during stepped-up military operations. In response, former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the circumstances in which troops could call in an airstrike or fire into buildings where civilians might be inside.
The revised rules, which are classified, never prevented U.S. troops from calling in air support, but some officers were exerting excessive caution, fearing career damage if civilians were mistakenly killed. Analysts said the rules were being interpreted and implemented unevenly across the country.
When Petraeus arrived in July, he reiterated the tactical directive, but emphasized that officers in the field should not add restrictions to his rules.
In Logar province on Tuesday, a roadside bomb killed four Afghan soldiers and their interpreter while on patrol, according to provincial spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
In the south, Afghan security forces in Kandahar seized a car loaded with explosives as well as communication equipment, remote controls for detonating bombs, guns, mines, rocket launchers, mortars and ammunition.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.