KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Western military said Monday it was investigating reports by Afghan officials that an errant airstrike in southern Afghanistan killed a mother and five children. Meanwhile, three NATO troops died in a roadside bombing in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said.
Word of the civilian fatalities in Helmand province comes at a sensitive time, just two weeks before a landmark 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 provide long-term development aid.
In the past, President Hamid Karzai has strongly denounced the Western military for noncombatant deaths, although the United Nations and other observers say the bulk of such fatalities are caused by the Taliban. Helmand governor Gulab Mangal "harshly condemned" the latest deaths, his office said.
Officials in Helmand said the fatal incident took place Friday in the Sangin district, amid heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces. They said the Taliban had launched repeated attacks on checkpoints in Sangin's Payan village. That drew return fire from coalition troops, during which a civilian home was hit, apparently accidentally, they said.
Mangal's office said the Western military had expressed regrets for the deaths and offered financial assistance to surviving family members. But a spokesman for the NATO force, U.S. Army Maj. Jason Wagonner, said he could not confirm that an apology had been made or compensation promised.
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.
-- Laura King and Aimal Yaqubi