KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An early morning NATO airstrike in Afghanistan's eastern Logar province killed five Afghan soldiers on Thursday, defense ministry officials said. The coalition said the deaths were an accident and expressed its condolences.
NATO said the Afghan soldiers were "accidentally killed," without specifying whether it was the result of an airstrike. Unusually reticent, Afghan President Hamid Karzai did not immediately condemn the international troops, telling reporters during a state visit to Sri Lanka that the incident is being investigated.
"This attack, NATO has admitted to me they did it mistakenly. We will investigate the issue and then speak about it," Karzai said. He added that he would speak much differently, presumably in harsher tones, if he were addressing reporters in his own country.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said the strike occurred in the province's Chakh district, and that eight Afghan National Army troops were also wounded in the incident. The ministry's helicopters ferried the wounded to Kabul, he told The Associated Press.
Azimi said an investigation was underway and that authorities "were saddened by the incident." A spokeswoman for the international forces in Afghanistan, Maj. Cathleen Snow, described the killings as an "unfortunate incident" during an operation in the country's east. She said an investigation was being conducted to determine the circumstances that led to the deaths.
Snow did not specify whether an airstrike was involved and did not elaborate on the operation. "We can confirm that at least five Afghan National Army personnel were accidentally killed this morning," Snow wrote in an email to the AP. "Our condolences go out to the families of the ANA soldiers who lost their lives and were wounded."
Earlier, a provincial government official said that 17 soldiers were wounded in the airstrike but the discrepancy in the number of wounded could not immediately be reconciled. The Logar official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Later in Logar, provincial officials were meetings to decide their response and to conduct a further investigation. Neither NATO nor Kabul officials would say whether Afghan troops had called in the airstrike, as they often do in battle when air power is needed.
Karzai has been deeply critical of civilian deaths by international forces and his relationship with Washington has been on a downward spiral for several years. But in the last year, Karzai's language has become much harsher. He has accused the international troops of being occupiers, colluding with the Taliban insurgents and carelessly killing Afghan civilians.
The testy relationship has kept Karzai from signing a security agreement with the United States that would allow for a residual force of U.S. and NATO troops to stay behind in Afghanistan after the end of December, when all international forces are to leave the country in an ending to the 13 years of war.
Karzai has cited civilian casualties as one of his reasons for refusing to sign the deal. He has sought guarantees from the United States to protect Afghan citizens. "We value the strong relationship with our Afghan partners, and we will determine what actions will be taken to ensure incidents like this do not happen again," said the NATO spokeswoman, Snow.
Previously, Karzai had ordered an end to all coalition air strikes unless they were first cleared by the defense ministry. The president's decree banned airstrikes in residential areas, Azimi said, at the same time stressing that the Afghan army needs NATO's air power.
"For air support, we always need the support of NATO forces," said Azimi. "The worries of the president, Ministry of Defense and the Afghan people are (about) civilian casualties in an airstrike. Therefore, the president issued a decree not to have any airstrikes in residential areas."
Azimi refused to say whether NATO had first contacted the ministry before carrying out Thursday's airstrike, in keeping with Karzai's demands.
Associated Press Writer Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.