STOCKHOLM, (Reuters) – EU ministers criticised NATO on Saturday for an air strike in Afghanistan that local officials said killed scores of people, many of them civilians.
The attack took place a day before EU foreign ministers met in Stockholm to discuss ways to boost Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and stem an Islamist insurgency.
Asked what more the bloc could do to improve the situation, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters: “It is difficult to say, but mainly to work with the Afghan people and not to bomb them, not only to bomb them.”
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called Friday’s air strike in Kunduz province an “unacceptable catastrophe” while EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Fererro-Waldner said it was “a great tragedy” that should be investigated.
Afghan officials say scores of people were killed, many of them civilians, when a U.S. F-15 fighter jet called in by German troops struck two hijacked fuel trucks before dawn on Friday.
NATO commanders hope to avert a backlash over the incident, which happened two months after the new U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, ordered extra precautions be taken to protect civilians before troops can open fire.
Kunduz had been largely quiet since the Taliban were toppled in 2001 but has recently seen an upsurge in attacks, with fighters seizing control of remote areas.
The area is patrolled by NATO’s 4,000-strong German contingent, which is banned by Berlin from operating in combat zones in other parts of the country.
The German military has confirmed a German commander approved the air strike. The incident could intensify a debate about the war, which is unpopular back home, three weeks before a German election.
NATO says its targets were Taliban fighters who had hijacked the trucks but has acknowledged some victims were civilians.
In Stockholm, EU ministers stressed the need to be able to work with a new Afghan government untainted by corruption once results of the contested presidential elections become clear.
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU would work with the new government that emerged, but did not say if aid flows would be affected if there were lingering questions about the elections.
Luxembourg’s Asselborn told Reuters ministers had agreed Afghan election authorities should report on irregularities and redress them by insisting on a second round of voting if the overall result had been affected.