NATO accused of killing 10 Afghan civilians in air strike

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A NATO air strike killed 10 civilians, mostly women or children, Afghan officials said Wednesday as Kabul welcomed President Barack Obama’s pledge to withdraw more U.S. troops.

NATO forces said they were investigating the claims of civilian deaths. “We take every allegation of civilian casualties very seriously,” a spokesman said.

If the deaths are confirmed it will be another blow to the prestige of U.S.-led forces as they prepare to withdraw combat troops from the war against Taliban Islamist insurgents by the end of next year.

The civilians were killed by a NATO air strike during an overnight raid on a Taliban hideout in a remote eastern region, local officials said.

“Five children, four women and a man were killed in the raid,” Kunar provincial governor Sayed Fazulullah Wahidi told AFP.

Three Taliban commanders, including a notorious al-Qaeda-linked militant leader called Shahpoor, were also killed in the raid, said district governor Abdul Zahir.

Zahir said the civilians were killed in the air raid in support of a ground operation by U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces in a Taliban-controlled valley in the insurgency-plagued region.

It was not clear if the owner of the targeted house was a member of the Taliban or a civilian, but the Taliban were visiting when the home was attacked, he added.

The Taliban often force villagers to provide them with food and shelter.

Four other children were wounded in the raid, Wahidi said.

Civilian casualties caused by NATO forces are a highly sensitive issue and are regularly condemned by President Hamid Karzai.

He has often said the war against terrorism should not be fought in Afghan villages and his government welcomed Obama’s announcement that the United States will withdraw 34,000 troops over the next year.

“We welcome this,” defense ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP. “We will take all security responsibilities by the end of 2013.”

“Our troops will replace them”

Karzai has long supported the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops by the end of 2014, saying Afghan forces are capable of taking responsibility for the fight against Taliban insurgents.

But many analysts have voiced skepticism over the ability of the mostly poorly-trained and equipped Afghan military to beat a force that has resisted NATO troops for more than 11 years.

Obama, who made the troop withdrawal announcement during his State of the Union address, said the drawdown would continue and “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

The Taliban dismissed the troop pullout as insufficient.

“The problem is not going to be solved with reducing or increasing the number of troops,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.

“As long as the invading forces remain in Afghanistan, the jihad (holy war) continues. The problem is solved with the complete withdrawal of the invading forces and returning Afghanistan back to Afghans.”

Obama’s move will effectively halve the size of the current 66,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan, as NATO troops prepare to hand over control for security operations to some 352,000 Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

Other NATO nations, which have about 37,000 troops in total in Afghanistan, will also withdraw them in stages before the end of 2014.