By Jonathon Burch
Kabul (Reuters) - The NATO-led force in Afghanistan said on Wednesday it was investigating yet another air strike that had apparently gone wrong, this time killing two children, and had suspended one of its commanders and grounded a helicopter crew.
Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops are a major source of tension between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. They also anger Afghans, complicating efforts to win their support for a war that has brought only misery for most people.
On Tuesday, Afghan officials said two brothers, aged 10 and 15, were killed in an air strike by NATO-led forces as they watered fields in the Chawki district of volatile Kunar province in the east late on Monday.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the air strike in Chawki had targeted two suspected insurgents, killing one and wounding another after they were seen planting a roadside bomb.
On Wednesday, ISAF issued a statement quoting the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, saying a formal investigation into the incident had been launched, the commander had been suspended and the helicopter crew involved had been grounded.
"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 gave testimony to the U.S. Congress in Washington on Tuesday, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that there had been successes and setbacks in Afghanistan and that more tough fighting lay ahead.
The latest civilian deaths occurred only weeks after two NATO helicopters gunned down nine boys as they collected firewood in the same province, a restive area bordering Pakistan where foreign forces have stepped up operations in recent weeks.
That incident followed a spate of reported civilian deaths by foreign troops, mainly in the east, and prompted a sharp rebuke from Karzai and a rare and candid apology for the killings by Petraeus.
President Barack Obama also expressed his "deep regret" over the killings and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Afghanistan last week, said the killings were a "setback" to bilateral relations.
Last year was the most lethal for civilians since the war started in 2001, with a 15 percent rise in civilian deaths to 2,777, according to a U.N. report this month. The report said insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the deaths.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday the security situation in Afghanistan had "dramatically deteriorated" in the first two months of this year and that life for ordinary Afghans had become "untenable."
NATO-led forces have significantly tightened rules governing air strikes and night raids in the past two years, leading to a drop in civilian casualties, but deaths are still relatively frequent and highly sensitive.
The U.N. report found that, while there was a 52 percent decline in civilian deaths from air strikes in 2010 compared to 2009, there was a 48 percent rise in deaths in the second half of last year compared to the first half.
This was due to "significant increases" in the use of air power during the second half of 2010.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)