A NATO airstrike killed eight civilians in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a district police chief said yesterday, adding to the toll for this year which is already the deadliest ever for civilians in the decade-long war.
The airstrike happened at about 3pm on Friday in the Nad Ali District of Helmand after insurgents attacked troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the area, Nad Ali District police chief Shidi Khan said.
Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan since US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties during the first six months of this year.
Civilian casualties caused by NATO-led troops hunting Taliban fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers.
The victims on Friday were from one family that had recently fled fighting in neighboring Uruzghan Province, Khan said.
ISAF confirmed an airstrike was carried out after a coalition patrol came under attack.
“Shortly after the engagement, coalition forces received reports that civilians were being held captive by the insurgents and may have been present during the airstrike,” an ISAF spokesman said.
He said a team of coalition members had met with local leaders and ISAF was assessing the incident.
A gradual transition of security control to Afghan forces began last month with when areas were handed over by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Afghan forces are scheduled to take full control across the country by the end of 2014.
The most contentious of the first seven areas to be handed over was Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
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 there are still several Helmand districts dominated by the Taliban.
In the past month insurgents have carried out a string of assassinations of high-profile southern leaders, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s younger half-brother and several large attacks killing police and civilians.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that the first six months of this year had been the deadliest period for civilians since the Taliban was toppled by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It said 1,462 civilians have been killed in conflict-related incidents, up 15 percent on the first half of last year. It blamed insurgents for 80 percent of those deaths.
Meanwhile, thirty-one US special forces and seven local troops were killed when the Taliban shot down a helicopter, officials said yesterday, in what was the deadliest single incident for foreign soldiers since the war began in 2001.
The Chinook helicopter was downed late on Friday during an anti-Taliban operation in the eastern province of Wardak.
Although Western and Afghan officials said they were still trying to assess exactly what had happened, an eyewitness claimed the chopper was struck during a firefight.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident, saying it had shot the helicopter down.
The death toll was given in a statement issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office and was not immediately confirmed by the ISAF.