KABUL // A Nato airstrike in southern Afganistan killed at least 21 civilians, the Afghan Interior Ministry said today, in an incident that could inflame already heightened sensitivities over non-combatant casualties. Nato forces confirmed in a statement that its planes yesterday fired on what it believed was a group of insurgents in southern Uruzgan province on their way to attack a joint Nato-Afghan patrol, but later discovered that women and children were hurt.
The injured were transported to medical facilities. The Afghan government and Nato have launched an investigation. The interior ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the air strike hit three minibuses travelling on a major road near Uruzgan's border with central Day Kundi province. There were 42 people in the vehicles, all civilians, Mr Bashary said. The Nato statement did not say how many people died or whether all the occupants of the vehicles were civilians.
Afghan investigators on the ground have collected 21 bodies and two people are missing. Fourteen others were wounded, he said. "We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," the Nato commander Gen Stanley McChrystal said in the statement. "I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our effort to regain that trust."
Gen McChrystal apologised to President Hamid Karzai for the incident yesterday, Nato said. On Saturday, Mr Karzai had admonished Nato troops for not doing enough to protect civilian lives. During a speech to the opening session of the Afghan parliament, Mr Karzai had called for extra caution on the part of Nato, which is currently conducting a massive offensive on the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighbouring Helmand province.
"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," Mr Karzai had said. "Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal." * AP