KABUL, Afghanistan — A NATO airstrike on Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan killed 11 civilians, at least 10 of them children, in addition to the targeted fighters, Afghan officials said Sunday. It was the latest incident involving civilian casualties, which have been a source of serious tension between Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition.
The strike late Saturday in mountainous Kunar province was called by coalition forces after they and their Afghan counterparts came under an attack that killed one American adviser and badly wounded four Afghan troops.
The American death was reported on Saturday, along with those of five other Americans killed elsewhere in Afghanistan, but details of the alleged civilian casualties surfaced only Sunday.
Wasifullah Wasifi, spokesman for the governor of Kunar province, said the strike killed seven Taliban militants, who were its target. In addition to the 10 children, one civilian woman was killed and five other women were wounded, he said.
However, President Hamid Karzai’s office later said all 11 of the dead were children, and Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said in a written statement that six Taliban were killed in the airstrike. Accounts from Afghan agencies sometimes differ.
Two of the dead, Taliban commanders Ali Khan and Gul Raouf, were the main planners and organizers of terrorist activities, armed assaults and explosions in the area where the strike occurred, the ministry said.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said it was investigating the airstrike and could not confirm reports that a large number of children were killed.
“We are still assessing the situation,” said John Manley, an ISAF spokesman. “We’re aware of the allegations that civilians died. We take these seriously.”
Initial reports were that the strike took place away from buildings, Manley said. He said he had no information on how many insurgents were killed or the type of aircraft involved in the airstrike.
Some Afghan reports suggested that people were killed when missiles hit homes.
The six U.S. deaths the same day as the airstrike made Saturday the deadliest day for Americans in the country since last summer.
The attacks included a car bomb that killed three U.S. soldiers, a young American diplomat and a U.S. Defense Department contractor in the southern province of Zabol. The diplomat was identified as Anne Smedinghoff, 25, of River Forest, Ill.
But in Afghanistan, the focus was on the deaths of the Afghan children.
Civilian casualties caused by NATO forces have been a highly contentious issue in Afghanistan and a source of growing tension between Washington and the Karzai’s administration. Karzai has forbidden Afghan troops from calling for airstrikes, and NATO advises crews not to drop bombs or fire in populated areas.
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Wasifi said relatives of the dead children brought their bodies to the district governor’s offices Sunday to protest.
“These airstrikes should be stopped in Afghan villages,” said Abdul Wahid Taqat, a Kabul-based military analyst and a former general. “The real Al Qaeda and Taliban problem isn’t here, it’s on the other side of the border in Pakistan and airstrikes should be targeted over there.”
Taqat said Pakistan receives huge sums of money from foreign governments to combat terrorism, but its intelligence agency often routes the money back into training insurgents.
“Pakistan receives money from the West to fight terrorism, but in fact helps terrorists,” he said. “Our neighbors are trying to increase instability in our country to further their interests.”
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.