Afghan civilians reported killed in Helmand air strike

Claims of 12 children among dead after attack ordered when US marines reportedly came under fire while on patrol

International forces in Afghanistan were caught in a new row over civilian casualties on Sunday after reports that 14 civilians, including up to 12 children, had been killed in a coalition air strike in the southern province of Helmand.

Afghan TV showed images of casualties being taken into hospitals and bereaved relatives cradling the bodies of several young children wrapped in bloody sheets.

The exact number of casualties in the incident, which occurred late on Friday night in the Nawzad district, was unclear.

A spokesman for the provincial governor said at least four children and a woman were confirmed dead.

"There were some joint forces [international and Afghan troops] who came under attack and fought back and killed these people," said Daoud Ahmadi. Several more people were injured, he added.

Reports suggest an air strike was called in after US marines operating alongside Afghan soldiers were attacked by insurgents. Bombs destroyed two houses where families were living.

On Sunday night, the commander of the Nato-led force Isaf in south-west Afghanistan apologised for the deaths of the civilians, saying troops had unwittingly targeted a home because insurgents were using it as a base. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai called it a "big mistake".

Nawzad has been a focus of coalition efforts in recent years but continues to see fierce fighting. Taliban fighters often hide in buildings used by civilians or deliberately draw fire on villagers, but this does not appear to be the case in this incident.

One resident, Noor Agha, told Reuters: "My house was bombarded in the middle of the night and my children were killed ... the Taliban were far away from my home; why was my house bombed?" The incident comes amid a surge of anti-western sentiment in Afghanistan and days after mass protests against a "night raid" by Nato special forces in the north of the country in which four people died, including two women.

Such night-time special forces operations target insurgent commanders and are a key element of the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by General David Petraeus, the overall commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, opposes the raids.

Twelve people died during the violent protests in usually peaceful northern Takhar province and more than 80 were wounded. There were also reports over the weekend of civilians killed in fighting and air strikes in the eastern Nuristan province. Nato said investigations had revealed no evidence to back the claims.

Dozens of insurgents were also reported dead in battles provoked by a mass attack on an isolated government district centre.

International officials said huge efforts were being made to limit civilian casualties. "It is taken very, very seriously at the highest levels. The whole emphasis of the current counter-insurgency strategy here is on protecting the population," a spokesman said.The UN says 75% of the 2,777 civilians killed in Afghanistan last year died through insurgent action. The total was 15% higher than the previous year.

The Taliban declared a new offensive at the start of May. On Saturday, a suicide bomber dressed in police uniform killed General Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police chief, and seriously injured a German major-general in an attack on a government compound.

Nato says the "surge" of 30,000 troops ordered by Barack Obama is working. NGOs say that though there has been improvement in some areas, security in others has become worse.

Under a plan agreed by Nato leaders in Lisbon last year, foreign troops will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan troops from late June, with the ultimate aim of withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.


Jason Burke in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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