JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN // An influential Afghan leader was among 14 people killed in a suicide bomb attack targeting a gathering of tribal elders in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, police said. Haji Zaman Ghamsharik was a former jihadi commander during the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s and an influential tribal leader in the province, a cross-border trading hub with Pakistan.
Until recent years, the area was a hotspot for Taliban activity, but under the guidance of leaders such as Gamsharik it became one of the more peaceful parts of the often volatile eastern border region. Col Abdul Ghafour, a police spokesman, said the bomber, on foot and wearing an explosives-packed vest, hit the tribal gathering in Nangarhar province's Khogyani district. At least another 15 people were wounded in the attack.
The attack happened as news broke of a Nato air strike in central Daykundi province where the Afghan government said 27 civilians, including women and a child, were killed when they were mistaken for militants. The top US commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, who has made winning Afghan hearts and minds the focus of plans to end the increasingly costly war, was forced into another apology over civilian deaths after the third incident in a week.
"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," he said. "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." A statement from the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said Gen McChrystal had visited him at his palace on Sunday to personally apologise for the civilian deaths.
Gen McChrystal and his superior, Gen David Petraeus, mapped out an offensive lasting 12 to 18 months that would strike beyond the current focus of operations in the southern province of Helmand. But the third mistaken Nato air strike reported by Afghan officials in a week risked undermining the campaign's strategic goals. The government said four women and a child were among the civilians killed in Gujran district of Daykundi province on Sunday when Nato forces mistook their convoy for Taliban militants.
A statement from the council of ministers, chaired by Mr Karzai, condemned the incident as "unjustifiable". The air raid came days after a Nato rocket attack on a house killed at least nine Afghan civilians, for which Gen McChrystal also apologised. Civilian casualties are a sensitive issue in Afghanistan, where Mr Karzai and his western backers are trying to win a war of perceptions. Last Thursday, a Nato bombing raid in the northern province of Kunduz killed seven Afghan policemen, according to hospital and government officials.
On February 15, Nato acknowledged that five civilians were killed accidentally and two others wounded in an air strike in southern Afghanistan. Mr Karzai used Saturday's opening session of parliament to repeat his call for civilians to be protected as 15,000 Afghan, US and Nato troops press Operation Mushtarak in Helmand into a second week. The assault on the Marjah and Nad Ali areas in southern Afghanistan's poppy-growing region is the first key test of a US troop increase that will boost the total number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan to 150,000 by August.
* Agence France-Presse