Kabul, Afghanistan (AP) - A provincial governor in Afghanistan said Wednesday that a battle between NATO and the Taliban the previous day had killed three women and two children, and called on the coalition to "pay attention" to civilian casualties.
Afghan officials have often spoken out about civilian deaths, arguing that the international forces are not being careful enough to avoid such casualties as the war nears its tenth year. Insurgents also try to use the civilian death toll as a way of rallying support for their cause.
Also Wednesday, NATO said that a leader of the Haqqani network -- militants who operate out of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan -- was killed in a Dec. 18 operation launched by international forces and their Afghan counterparts in the eastern Khost province.
In Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war, the provincial governor's office said the five civilians died Tuesday as militants attacked coalition forces in the Sangin district. Seven insurgents were killed in the battle, according to the statement from the governor's office.
NATO has said it was investigating the civilian fatalities and that it exercises the utmost caution during operations to minimize such occurrences. The coalition said Tuesday that insurgents were using a civilian home to attack its forces and that the insurgents launched their attack with assault rifles and a machine gun. NATO troops returned fire and used mortars.
A U.N. report this month said that Afghan civilian casualties increased by 20 percent in the first 10 months of 2010, compared with the same period a year earlier. It said there were at least 6,215 conflict-related civilian casualties -- 2,412 deaths and 3,803 injuries.
But the U.N. report also found that civilian casualties attributed to NATO and pro-government forces dropped by 18 percent compared to the first 10 months of 2009.
The governor's office said it wants NATO "to pay attention to civilian causalities during operations and prevent civilian causalities."
In the operation in Khost province, NATO said intelligence reports led international and Afghan troops to a compound in the Terezai district where an ensuing gun battle killed the Haqqani network leader, identified as Usman, along with an unspecified number of insurgents. NATO said Usman had coordinated and conducted attacks on its forces in Khost.
The Haqqani network is among militant groups that have hideouts in neighboring Pakistan from where they attack targets inside Afghanistan. U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to launch an offensive on the North Waziristan area where these groups are based, but Islamabad has rebuffed such requests, saying its forces are stretched too thin for such an operation without drawing down troops facing its archrival, India.
The increased civilian fatalities, coupled with the daily clashes in many parts of the country, underscore the difficulty in combatting the Taliban and other militants despite years of war and recent stepped-up efforts by NATO with the addition of about 30,000 new U.S. troops.
In tandem with the coalition forces, Afghan troops have also increasingly asserted their presence and efforts in the country -- gains made possible by a steady increase in the size of the national army. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters the Afghan National Army has grown to 150,000 troops. That's about 50,000 more than last year.
But as the army has grown, so too has the toll it has suffered. In what has become the deadliest year for international troops in Afghanistan, with 695 NATO troops killed, Azimi said 806 Afghan soldiers have been killed since the start of 2010. So far this month, 63 Afghan soldiers have died, compared to 43 in November, he said.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.