KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S.-led military coalition said Wednesday that it regrets the killing of eight civilians in a NATO airstrike this month in eastern Afghanistan.
Civilian casualties have long been a source of friction between the U.S.-led international force and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who condemned the bombing and sent a delegation to the scene to investigate.
The coalition called in the airstrike on Feb. 8 in the Najrab district in Kapisa province, after movements by eight people on the ground were assessed as a threat to Afghan police and NATO forces in the area, said Army Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, director of public affairs for the coalition.
"The aircraft dropped two bombs on the group that we believed to be an imminent threat to our people," Boone told reporters in Kabul. "Despite all tactical directives being followed precisely, we now know the unfortunate result of this engagement. In the end, eight young Afghans lost their lives in this very sad event."
Coalition and Afghan security forces were searching the area for weapons and ammunition, he said. Using binoculars and other equipment, ground forces identified several groups of Afghan males leaving a village at different times and going in different directions, he said. One group of eight headed for nearby mountains.
"They were observed moving in open terrain in a tactical fashion, clearly keeping distance from each other," Boone said. "Their purposeful movements and the weapons they were seen to be carrying led the ground commander to believe this group was getting ready to attack and were an imminent threat to the Afghan National Police and coalition forces in the valley."
The ages of the victims remained unclear. Local officials said seven were boys between the ages of 6 and 14 and one was a mentally ill young man around 18 to 20 years old.
Air Commodore Mike Wigston, the director of NATO air operations, said coalition officials did not reach the village until two days after the airstrike. By then, the victims had been buried. He said local officials showed the assessment team photographs of the corpses. Forensic experts, who examined the photographs, said the victims were young teenagers around 15 years old and one was older, Wigston said.
"These were young Afghans — adult-sized. I have no doubt that they were carrying weapons," Wigston said, adding that it's not unusual for villagers to carry weapons.
"We may never know what they were doing lined up under that rock that day," he said. "I'm not saying they were Taliban. I'm not saying they were insurgents. They weren't bombed because they were Taliban, or because they were insurgents or smugglers. They were bombed because we thought they were a threat."
U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has met with the provincial governor to express his condolences.
Hussain Khan Sanjani, the leader of the Kapisa provincial council who visited the area, said residents told him that before the airstrike, coalition aircraft were patrolling overhead as other forces searched homes.
Fearing the presence of the troops, the victims rounded up sheep and cows and moved them toward a mountainous area behind their homes, he said. When they got cold, they gathered brush and lighted a fire to keep warm, he said. One airstrike hit a large boulder and the other struck the victims, who were badly burned, according to Sanjani.