NATO apologizes for Afghan civilian deaths

By MIRWAIS KHAN and SOLOMON MOORE | May 30, 2011 | 12:43 AM EDT

Afghan security stand at the site where a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the provincial governor's compound in Taloqan, Takhar province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 28, 2011. The German military says its top commander in Afghanistan was wounded Saturday when a suicide bomber attacked a provincial governor's compound in the north of the country. (AP Photo/ Fulad Hamdard)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A NATO airstrike targeting insurgents fighting from a residential compound in the volatile southwestern province of Helmand inadvertently killed at least nine civilians, NATO officials said on Monday, although the actual tally of civilian deaths remains unclear due to varying official accounts.

Southwest regional commander U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan issued an official apology early Monday morning on behalf of top coalition commanders Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez for the killing of nine civilians in Saturday's NATO attack.

"I want to offer my sincere apologies for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident in Nawzad district, Helmand province," Toolan said.

Toolan said that the airstrike was launched after an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol in the district killed a Marine. Five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who called in an airstrike "to neutralize the threat," Toolan said.

"Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians," Toolan said. "A full investigation is ongoing to determine the exact details of this incident. While I know there is no price on human life we will ensure that we make amends with the families in accordance with Afghan culture."

On Sunday, Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial government, said NATO hit two civilian houses and counted a higher number of civilian deaths — five girls, seven boys and two women. Six other civilians were injured, Ahmadi said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks in a statement on Sunday that revised Ahmadi's casualty figure, saying that 10 children, two women, and two men were killed.

Karzai called for an end to coalition attacks that resulted in civilian deaths, calling such operations "inhumane."

Civilian deaths are an ongoing source of tension between NATO and Afghan officials.

"We have told the Americans and NATO forces several times that uncoordinated operations will result in the killing of innocent civilians and that such operations are inhumane, but still no one has listened," Karzai said Sunday, adding that his condemnation would be "the last warning to NATO forces, American forces, and American officials."

It is unclear what leverage Karzai ultimately has over military operations conducted by NATO, which is working in Afghanistan under an international mandate. White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on Karzai's warning, but said that the United States shares his concerns about civilian deaths and works with Afghan officials to avoid undue loss of life.