LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An air strike called in by NATO-led troops in southern Afghanistan killed 12 children and two women, Afghan officials said on Sunday, one of the worst civilian death tolls by foreign forces in months.
The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign troops, usually during air strikes or night raids, is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, and complicates efforts to win support from ordinary Afghans for an increasingly unpopular war.
Karzai condemned the latest apparent case of civilian casualties caused by NATO air strikes, saying he had warned U.S. and NATO troops that their “arbitrary and unnecessary operations” were killing innocent people every day.
He said in a statement issued by the presidential palace the incident in Helmand province in the south was “a big mistake”. “It shows that attention is not being paid,” he said.
A U.S. Marine base came under fire from insurgents in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, on Saturday, the Helmand governor said in a statement, leading the base to call for help from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
“ISAF’s air strike took place on two civilian houses. Unfortunately 14 innocent civilians were killed and six civilians wounded,” the Helmand governor’s statement said.
It said seven boys, five girls and two women were among the dead. Three children were among the wounded, it said.
An ISAF spokesman in Kabul said: “We are aware of the reports that alleged civilians were killed yesterday in Helmand.” He said an assessment team had been sent to the area and would issue its findings shortly.
Male relatives cradled the bodies of several young children, who were wrapped in bloody sheets and placed side to side. They brought them in the back of a truck to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, Reuters pictures showed on Sunday.
“My house was bombarded in the middle of the night and my children were killed ... the Taliban were far away from my home, why was my house bombed?” relative Noor Agha told Reuters.
The NATO air strike comes at a time of high anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan and days after protests by thousands of people against a night raid by NATO troops in which four people, including two women, were killed.
Twelve people were killed during those protests and in clashes with police in Takhar. More than 80 people were wounded.
In February, four days of operations by Afghan and foreign troops killed 64 civilians in the eastern Kunar province, Afghan officials said, including many women and children. A NATO rocket attack last July killed 39 civilians, almost all women or children, in Helmand.
On Saturday, Karzai ordered the Defence Ministry to take control of the night raids, saying Afghan troops should be carrying out the sensitive operations themselves. Afghans say the raids, carried out on houses suspected of harbouring insurgents, often lead to civilian casualties.
Under a plan agreed by NATO leaders, foreign troops will begin handing over security responsibilities to Afghan troops from July, with a plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Despite the presence of some 150,000 foreign troops, violence in Afghanistan last year reached its deadliest phase since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
The Taliban this month announced the start of their spring offensive, vowing to attack foreign and Afghan troops and government officials.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Paul Tait