KABUL, Afghanistan -- An angry new dispute over civilian casualties erupted Wednesday, with Afghan officials asserting that nine children gathering firewood on a mountainside were killed by an American bombardment in a troubled eastern province. A tenth child was reported wounded.
President Hamid Karzai, on an official visit to London, condemned the episode "in the strongest terms possible," calling it a "ruthless attack" and questioning whether Western war aims could be achieved if noncombatants continue to die.
Western military officials said in a statement that they were investigating Tuesday's incident, which began when an outpost in the Dara-i-Pech district of Kunar province was hit by rocket fire, presumably from insurgents, which injured a local contractor. The base's defenders responded with "indirect and aerial fire," the statement said. Indirect fire usually describes the use of field artillery.
Kunar province last month was the scene of another confrontation between the Karzai government and the NATO force over civilian casualties. The Western military said its initial findings were that three dozen armed insurgents had died in a series of airstrikes, but Afghan officials put the death toll at more than 60, most of them civilians.
U.S. commanders recently announced plans to dismantle a string of small outposts in the Pech River valley, which was previously described as a crucial line of defense against insurgents infiltrating from Pakistan. Holding the valley had exacted a heavy toll in U.S. casualties, but commanders said the repositioning would allow them to make better use of troops elsewhere.
The Kunar provincial police chief, Kahilullah Ziayee, said the nine children between ages 8 and 14 were killed as they scoured the rugged hillside for wood for their families to burn. Most Afghan homes are wood-heated, particularly in the countryside, and the winters are bitterly cold in the rugged mountains and valleys of Kunar province.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said representatives of Afghanistan's defense and interior ministries would take part in the investigation, which it promised would be carried out "quickly and thoroughly."
"We take civilian casualty allegations very seriously," said Col. Charles Toplikar, a spokesman.
Civilian casualties have been a major source of tension between the NATO force and the Karzai government, exacerbating already considerable friction over corruption, election fraud and other issues. In his statement issued from London, the Afghan leader denounced "unjustifiable operations and bombings" carried out by Western troops.
Independent organizations, including the United Nations, blame insurgents for the bulk of civilian deaths and injuries, hundreds of which are caused each year by suicide attacks and roadside bombings. However, deaths at the hands of foreign forces tend to arouse greater public fury, with Afghans arguing that Western troops should be held to a higher standard.
In addition, many people believe that attacks that kill civilians are galvanized by the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops. The NATO force numbers about 150,000, of whom 100,000 are Americans.
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