14 civilians killed in two NATO airstrikes, Afghan officials say

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Two NATO airstrikes, one in the north of Afghanistan and one in the south, killed 14 civilians, including a mother and five children, Afghan officials said Monday.

Word of the latest civilian fatalities came at a sensitive time, just two weeks before a major NATO summit in Chicago. At the gathering, the allies are expected to affirm plans to pull most combat troops out of Afghanistan, while pledging to continue training Afghan forces and providing long-term development aid.

In the past, President Hamid Karzai has strongly denounced the Western military over civilian deaths, although the United Nations and other observers say the bulk of such fatalities are caused by the Taliban.

The most recent deaths were reported in Badghis province, in the country's northwest. Officials said an airstrike on Sunday targeted a group of Taliban fighters, killing three of them -- but also eight civilians.

"With the warmer weather, people are living in tents up in the mountains, and the problem was that the Taliban were on the same mountainside," said Adul Jabar Saleh, the provincial chief of police. He said six other civilians were injured.

Another fatal incident took place Friday in Helmand province, amid heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces. Provincial officials said the Taliban had launched repeated attacks on checkpoints in Sangin district. Those strikes drew fire from coalition troops, during which a civilian home was hit, killing a woman, two boys and three girls, they said.

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for the NATO force's southwestern regional command, confirmed the incident and said a formal apology was forthcoming. Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said he had met with the Western commander in the area and demanded that greater care be taken to avoid hurting and killing civilians.

Sangin, a strategic district deep in the Taliban's traditional heartland, has long been a flash point for fighting. British troops struggled for four years to subdue it before handing off in late 2010 to U.S. Marines, who launched a months-long offensive during which they suffered the highest casualty rates of any U.S. unit in the course of the war.

Fourteen months ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Sangin to hail the "dramatic turnaround" in security brought about by the Marines, but violence has since crept upward again.

U.S. forces, whose numbers peaked last year at about 100,000 following a troop surge ordered by President Obama, are now in the midst of drawing down. Although many parts of the south remain volatile, commanders have said they expect clashes during the current "fighting season" to be fiercest in eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Also on Monday, military officials said three NATO troops died in a roadside bombing in eastern Afghanistan. No other details were provided.

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-- Laura King

Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

 
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