NATO officials have not disclosed how many civilians were killed and wounded, and did not say whether suspected Taliban were among the casualties.
Afghan officials in Helmand said the dead included two men, two women and three children. Three more children and two adults were wounded, the Helmand governor’s office said in a statement late Saturday.
The civilians were in a vehicle behind the insurgents when the alliance’s forces fired on the insurgents’ car. The explosion destroyed the civilian car, the governor’s office said. The condition of the suspected insurgents’ vehicle was not disclosed.
Civilian casualties have been one of the most contentious issues in Afghanistan, exacerbating tensions in the delicate relationship between international forces and President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai raised the issue again in a speech on Tuesday, saying that the reduction of civilian deaths was an issue that must be addressed as Afghan forces begin taking over responsibility for security in some areas of the country this summer.
NATO officials offered only minimal details about the episode Saturday as they investigated. And local authorities in the province were either unreachable or were unaware of the attack because cellphone service had been out in the entire province for much of the last week on orders of the Taliban.
The cellphone disruption has caused chaos for business owners and residents in the province. With a dearth of reliable landlines, the province, like most of the country, has come to rely on mobile networks in recent years.
Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, who was in Kandahar on business, said by telephone that he had not been able to get information on the civilian deaths because of the cellphone cutoff.
By nightfall, though, the governor’s office released partial details about the casualties. It was unclear if all the dead and wounded civilians were in the same vehicle. It’s not uncommon in this poverty-stricken country for large families to travel together in packed vehicles.
“Helmand provincial governor Muhammad Gulab Mangal strongly condemns civilian casualties,” the governor’s office said in a statement, adding that it was requesting that the alliance’s forces use extra caution when carrying out military operations around civilians.
A United Nations report this month said that 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, the deadliest toll in more than nine years of war. The Taliban were blamed for 75 percent of the deaths. The number of deaths by NATO forces declined 26 percent.
But a number of high-profile episodes have led to continuing strains between NATO and the Afghan government.
Earlier this month, NATO airstrikes accidentally killed 11 children in two separate attacks.