LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the southerly Helmand province on Saturday, where he condemned recent foreign air strikes that have killed civilians, and two rockets apparently exploded nearby.
The two blast were heard near a meeting hall as Karzai addressed around 500 people, encouraging them to persuade their children to enlist with the Afghan army and attacking the deaths of civilians in recent air attacks.
It was not clear if the rockets were fired at Karzai. “We strongly request foreign forces in Afghanistan to stop irregular house searches and operations that are not coordinated (with Afghan forces), especially air strikes,” Karzai said. “We will pursue the issue of civilian casualties very seriously,” he added.
A villager from Bulan, several hundred metres away from where Karzai was talking, told Reuters that two rockets had landed there during the speech, but no one was hurt or killed.
Karzai has survived at least three assassination attempts, the most recent in April 2008 while attending a military parade close to the presidential palace in Kabul.
The latest foreign air strike to come under scrutiny was a mid-week attack in Helmand province, near Lashkar Gah, that killed eight civilians, although Karzai apparently did not plan to visit the site.
Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal said the attack, in a province that is a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency, killed eight civilians, including four children.
A convoy of foreign troops was passing through Babaji district when they came under insurgent attack and called for air support, Mangal added.
NATO forces declined immediate comment on the incident, the latest in a series of such attacks that have inflamed tensions within Afghanistan, and between Karzai and his Western backers.
Last weekend a disputed night raid killed a group that Karzai and the United Nations said included at least eight school-age students, but NATO-led forces described as an insurgent group.
The deaths, in restive eastern Kunar region, sparked protests by hundreds of people in at least three cities.