KABUL, (Reuters) – Two civilians were killed and six wounded in an operation in southern Afghanistan on Saturday that included air strikes by NATO-led forces, military officials said.
The British military in the southern province of Helmand said the casualties were civilians, but a spokesman for the NATO force in Kabul said the status of the casualties was being investigated and four of the wounded had been detained.
If the casualties were confirmed as being civilians, it would add to tension between the Afghan government and its Western backers, already high after the deaths of dozens of civilians in a string of mistaken air strikes this year.
Two airstrikes were launched in Helmand’s Naad Ali district to enable a joint patrol of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and the Afghan army to withdraw after coming under fire, the ISAF spokesman said.
“After sustained contact from the enemy from numerous positions, and having exhausted all other means of extracting themselves from the area, they called for close air support,” ISAF said in a statement.
ISAF commander General David McKiernan, trying to reduce civilian casualties, issued a directive in October ordering his troops to withdraw from firefights rather than call in air strikes wherever possible, if they could not be sure there were no civilians in the target area.
The British military said two civilians had been killed in fighting in Naad Ali and six wounded civilians taken to hospital. “This morning two dead and six injured civilians were brought to our medical facility near Naad Ali and the four most seriously injured were moved to our medical facility at Camp Bastion,” said Commander Paula Rowe, spokeswoman for the British army in Afghanistan.
Naad Ali district is in Helmand province, the main opium growing region where mostly British forces are engaged in daily gunbattles with Taliban insurgents.
Rowe said an investigation into the Afghan civilian deaths was under way and more information would be released later in the day. “We are always deeply saddened by civilian deaths irrespective of how they are caused,” Rowe said.