NATO air strike kills 33 Afghans

Kabul—A NATO air strike killed at least 33 civilians, the Afghan government said on Monday, in the third such mistaken bombing raid in Afghanistan in a week and forcing another apology from a top US commander.

Four women and a child were among the civilians killed on Sunday when they were attacked after being mistaken for Taliban militants who are waging an eight-year insurgency to evict Western troops.

The top ground commander, US General Stanley McChrystal, apologised for the incident to President Hamid Karzai, who has repeatedly warned foreign and Afghan forces to take all measures possible to avoid harming civilians.

The air strike came days after NATO forces pressing a major offensive in the south killed at least nine Afghan civilians when a rocket slammed into a house—for which McChrystal also apologised.

A statement from the decision-making council of ministers, which is chaired by Karzai, condemned the latest incident as “unjustifiable”.

“Initial reports indicate that NATO fired Sunday on a convoy of three vehicles in Gujran district of the province of Daykundi, killing at least 33 civilians including four women and one child and injuring 12 others while they were on their way to Kandahar,” the statement said.

Sunday’s incident was the third mistaken NATO air strike in Afghanistan reported by Afghan officials in a week.

Last Thursday, a NATO bombing raid in the northern province of Kunduz killed seven Afghan policemen, according to hospital and government officials.

On February 15, NATO acknowledged that five civilians were killed accidentally and two others wounded in an air strike in southern Afghanistan.

Karzai used Saturday’s opening session of parliament to repeat his call for civilians to be protected as 15,000 Afghan, US and NATO troops press Operation Mushtarak (Together) in the southern province of Helmand into a second week.

The assault on the Marjah and Nad Ali areas in the heartland of southern Afghanistan’s poppy growing region is the first step of a wider campaign that will last 12-18 months, McChrystal and his boss US General David Petraeus say.

The operation is a showcase test of their counter-insurgency strategy which marries military and civilian efforts to drive out militants and reassert government control with security and civil services.

The operation is now in its ninth day, and though police have moved into the target area, NATO commanders say it could be another month before it is cleared of fighters and their booby trap bombs.

NATO on Monday described resistance from Taliban fighters as “determined” in Marjah while “cautious optimism” was the order of the day in nearby Nad Ali,”as early signs indicate a return to normality”.

McChrystal was quoted as saying that Kandahar province, neighbouring Helmand and the spiritual home of the Taliban, is the likely next target of operations to eradicate the insurgent militia.—AFP

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