KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation on Sunday into a NATO air strike that killed eight civilians in the volatile south of the country, adding more fuel to an already contentious issue between Kabul and foreign forces. Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001. While there have been high levels of foreign troop deaths, Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict.
Gulab Mangal, governor of southern Helmand province, said on Sunday that a NATO air strike on Friday killed the eight civilians, including women and children. They were members of an insurgent's family, he said, and the insurgent -- described as a bomb maker -- was also killed in the incident.
Karzai has appointed a team to investigate the case, the presidential palace said in a statement.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) has said the air strike in Helmand's Nad Ali district was called in after a coalition patrol came under attack. ISAF is also investigating the incident after meeting local leaders.
"Shortly following the engagement, coalition forces received reports that civilian family members of one of the insurgents may have been present during the air strike," ISAF said in a statement on Saturday.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops hunting Taliban fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Karzai's government and its Western backers.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that the first six months of 2011 had been the deadliest period for civilians in the decade-long war. It said 1,462 civilians were killed, 15 percent more than in the first half of 2010, and blamed insurgents for 80 percent of the deaths.
Helmand province has been the site of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. Far more foreign troops have died there than in any other province and several Helmand districts remain dominated by the Taliban.
A gradual transition of security control to Afghan forces began last month, when seven areas were handed over by ISAF. Afghan forces are to take full control across the country by the end of 2014. One of the first seven areas to be handed over was Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
In the past month, insurgents have carried out a string of destabilising assassinations of high-profile southern leaders, including President Hamid Karzai's younger brother, and several large attacks killing police and civilians. (Reuters)