- Financial Times -
An air strike called in by US special forces in southern Afghanistan has killed at least 33 civilians, sparking fresh anger at foreign troops at the height of an offensive aimed at making the population in the region feel safer.
The Nato-led force in Afghanistan said its troops called in the strike on Sunday on what they thought was a convoy of insurgents preparing to attack a unit of Afghan and international soldiers in southern Uruzgan province. Instead, foreign troops found civilians, including women and children, at the scene.
The incident, which is under investigation, was not part of Operation Moshtarak, an offensive by US, UK and Afghan troops aimed at driving the Taliban from the town of Marjah in neighbouring Helmand province.
But the killings served as a reminder of the difficulty of waging combat operations designed to protect people from insurgents without causing the kind of casualties likely to deepen alienation from the government of Hamid Karzai, the president, and its allies.
"Blind bombing by foreign troops killed these people," said Mohammed Hashem Watanwal, a member of parliament from Uruzgan. "This is far from humanity, this is far from Afghan culture, and it's far from Islam. There is no reason to kill innocent people in this way."
Stanley McChrystal, US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, was said to be furious about the strike.
"General McChrystal is more on top of the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, and the strategic consequences of civilian casualties, than anybody," said Robert Gates, the US defence secretary.
US special forces have a degree of independence from Nato command. The alliance did not confirm the nationality of the soldiers who called in the strike.
The strike came after the Dutch government collapsed at the weekend when the two largest parties in the coalition failed to agree to extend their Afghanistan mission.
The Afghan government condemned the attack as "unjustifiable". It said four women and a child were among those killed during the air strike on a convoy of three vehicles. At least 12 people were wounded.
The attack was the worst known incident of noncombatant deaths caused by Nato forces since September, when Afghan officials believe 30-40 civilians were killed after German forces called in an air strike on a hijacked fuel tanker.
Gen McChrystal spoke to Mr Karzai to express his regret at the latest deaths, the Nato-led force said. "We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," he said.
Gen McChrystal issued a similar statement a week ago after a stray Nato rocket fired in the Marjah offensive killed 12 civilians .
Separately, an Afghan elder who commanded Afghan forces during a failed attempt to capture Osama bin Laden in late 2001 was killed along with 14 other people in a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan yesterday. Haji Zaman's forces cornered Mr Bin Laden near Tora Bora but allowed him to slip away into Pakistan.