NATO launched an investigation Wednesday into the killing this week of two boys in eastern Afghanistan by a coalition helicopter, an attack the coalition said may have been a mistake, a statement said.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, pledged a full investigation into the incident, the most recent involving civilian casualties that has severely strained relations between the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition.
Kunar provincial police chief Gen. Khalilullah Ziayi said the two brothers, aged 11 and 17, were tending fields on their family farm in Kunar's Chawkay district when they were killed on Monday.
"Unfortunately once again NATO forces in an air strike killed two boys," Ziayi said. "They had no links to insurgents and they were not armed when they were attacked. They had shovels."
NATO said the helicopter crew involved in Monday's attack "may have unintentionally engaged civilians who were working on field and road drainage." It added that the commander of the local ground force and crew of the attack helicopter were suspended pending the investigation.
"I cannot overstate how seriously we take all instances of civilian casualties. I take personal interest in every case, and have recently ordered a review of our tactical directive on the use of force by all aircrews of attack helicopters," the statement quoted Petraeus as saying. "We will take all necessary steps to get to the bottom of this. We know we cannot succeed if we harm the people we are striving to protect."
Petraeus has been in Washington testifying on Capitol Hill about the course of the nearly 10-year-old war. He has been trying to build support for the continued and costly U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, telling lawmakers the conflict is turning around despite concerns about President Hamid Karzai's government.
His testimony comes at a crucial period in the conflict. The U.S. is preparing to start a gradual hand over of security to Afghan forces that will be completed by the end of 2014. Karzai is to announce next week the first six areas that will be handed over, and the U.S. is expected to start pulling out some of its forces in July.
It also comes as U.S. and coalition forces prepare for what many officials have described as a bloody spring and summer as the Taliban try to retake some of the lands they lost to international forces _ mostly in the south. The Afghan fighting season traditionally starts in the spring, when insurgents finish harvesting their fields and many pour back into the country from safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.
NATO said that one of its service members was killed in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday. It did not provide a nationality or details, but the death was the 14th this month. A total of 81 international troops have been killed so far this year.
As part of the transition, the U.S. and Afghanistan held two days of negotiations earlier this week on a long-term security arrangement expected to guide their cooperation after 2014. Officials from both countries were to meet again in April.
"Both sides expressed a strong conviction that a new strategic partnership would contribute to building up Afghanistan's capacity and institutions as well as improved economic and political relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors," a statement from the U.S. Embassy said.
Relations between the two countries have become increasingly brittle in recent weeks following accusations from Karzai that the U.S. was not doing enough to prevent civilian deaths _ including the mistaken killing on March 1 of nine Afghan boys who were gathering firewood in a remote valley in Kunar. Petraeus apologized for those killings, which were caused by an attack helicopter that mistook the boys for insurgents.
Late last month, tribal elders in Kunar claimed that NATO forces killed more than 50 civilians in air and ground strikes. The international coalition denied the claim, saying video showed troops targeting and killing dozens of insurgents.
According to U.N. data, insurgents were responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in 2010.