Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) — A NATO commander called the military’s killing of nine eastern Afghan boys thought to be insurgents “a terrible mistake” and promised disciplinary action if warranted.
In a video message on Thursday, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez apologized for the deaths and said an investigation is ongoing into the Tuesday incident in the Darah-Ye Pech district of Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Civilian casualties during warfare in Afghanistan have hurt NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, and Rodriguez’s video statement reflects the high priority coalition leaders place on avoiding such accidents.
He said insurgents in mountains above a coalition base launched a rocket attack that wounded a U.S. civilian. Troops returned fire, and insurgents later shot another rocket at the troops.
Two attack helicopters flew to the location where “they were told the rockets came from,” identified who they thought were insurgents and killed nine people. Later, they found that the slain people were boys cutting wood.
Rodriguez said these incidents are “rare” when considering all of the operations the coalition undertakes. He said a lot of time is spent training soldiers on how to “engage the right targets,” and directives are constantly reviewed.
“We have done much better preventing civilian casualties,” he said. “But we acknowledge we have to do better.”
Rodriguez said the military understands families’ grief over such deaths, and he said soldiers “feel worse than they can express” when they “do something terrible like mistakenly killing young boys.”
“They have to live with that for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Rodriguez also urged Afghans to help their security forces battle insurgents.
His statement followed an apology Wednesday from ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus.
“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan, and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” Petraeus said.
“Regrettably, there appears to have been an error in the hand-off between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out the subsequent operations.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident “in the strongest terms possible.” He noted the incident occurred less than 10 days after another incident “that left many civilians dead in the same province.”
On February 20, Kunar Gov. Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi said 64 civilians had died in a joint operation by ISAF and Afghan security forces over several days. The dead included 20 women and 15 children, he said.
Petraeus recently directed military commanders in Afghanistan to review changes meant to minimize civilian casualties. He has ordered commanders to brief helicopter attack crews again on the changes, he said.