A provincial governor in Afghanistan's dangerous south said Saturday that seven civilians were accidentally killed when a NATO helicopter fired on two vehicles believed to be carrying Taliban fighters.
Civilian casualties have long been a source of friction between the U.S.-led international force and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has bluntly told the coalition that they must end. A recent U.N. report said at least 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, with about three-quarters of the deaths blamed on the insurgency.
The international alliance said it was investigating the strike, which occurred on Friday in the Naw Zad district of Helmand province. The helicopter airstrike followed intelligence reports that suggested a Taliban leader and his associates were in the vehicles, NATO said.
In the aftermath of the strike, coalition troops found bodies of civilians in the wreckage, NATO said. It did not released the number of the dead and wounded.
A statement issued by the Helmand provincial governor's office said seven people _ two men, two women and three children _ were killed when coalition forces fired on the suspects. Those killed were in another vehicle traveling near the targeted ones. Five others Afghan civilians _ a man, woman and three children _ were wounded, the governor's office said.
Helmand provincial Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal condemned the civilian casualties.
The deaths came only two days after the international coalition accidentally killed two civilians in the eastern province of Khost. The two were walking near a car with suspected insurgents and were not seen until after a NATO helicopter gunship launched Wednesday's strike, NATO said.
At least four other people were killed in three separate attacks in southern Afghanistan on Friday, including a child, a NATO soldier, and two civilians on a motorcycle.
The child was killed in a bomb attack outside the home of a high-ranking Afghan border police officer in Kandahar province, according to the Afghan interior ministry. The bomber himself was injured in the attack and is in critical condition, Afghan police said. Four other people were also wounded in the explosion, police said.
A coalition soldier died following an insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan, NATO announced. The international force provided no other details about the casualty, pending notification of next of kin.
The death brings to 26 of NATO service members who have died so far this month in Afghanistan.
Also on Friday, two civilians riding on a motorcycle were killed by a roadside explosive in the southern province of Zabul.
Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices killed at least 1,141 Afghan civilians in the conflict in 2010, according to the U.N.
International troops have been attempting to pacify the restive south of the country, the heartland of the Taliban, and have been met with fierce resistance.
Germany's Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere visited Afghanistan on Saturday, his first trip to the battleground since taking the job this month. German lawmakers Friday endorsed sending up to 300 crew members to man surveillance planes in Afghanistan _ a move meant to take pressure off NATO allies enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
De Maiziere and his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak, discussed Kabul's recent announcement that Afghan security forces would take the lead in seven areas across the nation from July.
The Afghan defense minister said that as the process develops, "the role of the international forces will change to mentoring and supporting" Afghan troops, would gradually allow the "thinning out (of foreign forces) and then one day, I hope, their safe return home with full satisfaction of mission accomplished."
Karzai, who traveled on Saturday to Iran for a Persian New Year's ceremony, wants his security forces to be in charge throughout the country by the end of 2014.