KABUL, Afghanistan — Twelve Afghan civilians died Sunday after two U.S. rockets mistakenly hit a house during the much-trumpeted offensive to clear the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, a loss of life that is likely to seriously undermine the operation and the American-led mission in the country.
The use of the rockets has been suspended pending a “thorough review” of the incident, the joint military command said in a statement.
An Afghan soldier and an unidentified member of the NATO force were injured in the firefight that preceded the rocket attack. No details on injuries among the civilians were released.
After managing to avoid civilian casualties on the first day of the operation, which was declared a success, Sunday _ Day Two _ brought disaster. A Marine unit embedded with Afghan soldiers, which came under sustained fire from two directions, called in heavy munitions known as a Himars, which are rockets fired from a truck. The rockets landed some 300 yards off target in the Nad Ali district.
“We deeply regret this tragic loss of life,” said Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. general who leads international forces in Afghanistan. “The current operation in Central Helmand is aimed at restoring security and stability to this vital area of Afghanistan. It’s regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost.”
McChrystal also apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for what he called the “unfortunate incident.”
The new U.S. strategy for quelling the insurgency and stabilizing Afghanistan calls for minimizing civilian casualties and minimizing the use of force. The large number of deaths in a single incident calls into question the approach to the operation to take Marjah town, and provides easy propaganda points to the Taliban enemy.
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