KABUL (Reuters) – The United Nations has called for a review of air strikes by foreign forces in Afghanistan after the inadvertent killing of nine children this week drew condemnation from Afghans and apologies from U.S. leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed his “deep regret” to Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai over the killing of the nine children, who were collecting firewood in a volatile eastern province on Tuesday when they were gunned down by helicopters from the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Civilian casualties caused by NATO-led and Afghan forces hunting insurgents have again become a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers, even though U.N. figures show that more than three-quarters are caused by insurgents.
“Children killed in Afghanistan by air strikes is a cause of serious concern,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said in a statement issued in New York.
There have been at least four incidents of civilian casualties in eastern Afghanistan in the past two weeks in which Afghan officials say more than 80 people have died.
In angry denunciations, some Afghan leaders have called for protests as well as explanations and have said peace efforts would be futile if such incidents continue.
International concern has also grown considerably and the fallout from the recent incidents is even threatening to hamper peace and reconciliation efforts, with a gradual drawdown of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan to begin in July.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a rare and candid public apology over the children’s deaths and promised an investigation, as well as a review of procedures and disciplinary action if needed.
Coomaraswamy welcomed Petraeus’ apology but urged a thorough review “to ensure that all necessary precautions are taken to prevent children from becoming casualties in the complex and volatile situation in Afghanistan.”
Karzai has an often testy relationship with his Western backers. On Wednesday, he condemned the latest killings as “merciless” and said they could cause “huge problems.”
The relationship stalled badly in late 2009 over a similar spate of civilian casualties, prompting a review of procedures for air strikes and night raids by Petraeus’ predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal.
Petraeus tightened procedures even further when he took command in mid-2010, but mistaken killings of innocent Afghans still happen, especially with U.S. and NATO forces stepping up operations against insurgents in recent months.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who met Karzai in Kabul on Friday , said the killing of the children was unacceptable and tragic and that he would raise them in a meeting with Petraeus.
“Nine young boys dying is not acceptable,” Rudd told Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Lateline” programme.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 20 percent to 6,215 in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with 2009, according to the United Nations, with insurgents responsible for more than three-quarters of those killed or wounded.
Those caused by foreign and Afghan troops accounted for 12 percent of the total, an 18 percent drop, but it is those which rile Afghans most. While they do not condone them, many Afghans say militants attacks would not happen if international troops were not in Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Andrew Marshall)