KABUL, Afghanistan — Troops in attack helicopters that belong to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan mistakenly killed nine boys Tuesday with machine-gun and rocket fire as they collected firewood, thinking that the children were Taliban insurgents, the international forces acknowledged Wednesday.
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, ordered all field commanders and helicopter crew members to study their orders again on when coalition aircraft can open fire on people on the ground.
The coalition said it was "deeply sorry" for the error.
The incident was sure to inflame already-raw Afghan sensitivities on civilian deaths from coalition military actions. Mohammed Bismel, a brother of two of the dead boys, told McClatchy that he thought Afghan President Hamid Karzai should resign and declare "holy war against foreign forces."
"I am happy to join it," he said.
The boys, aged 7 to 13, were collecting firewood in the Pech valley in Kunar province at 11:30 a.m. when they were targeted, said Fazlullah Wahidi, the provincial governor. Petraeus said the tragedy seemed to have resulted from a mistake in passing the location of suspected terrorists to the helicopter crew, which was responding to a rocket attack on a base in the province.
"These deaths should have never happened, and I will personally apologize to President Karzai when he returns from his trip to London this week," Petraeus said in a statement.
The coalition was investigating the killings, and it said that disciplinary action against the service members involved was possible.
"This kind of attack leaves bad effects," Wahidi said. "Whenever one civilian is killed, we lose all our achievements and the people get angry."
In a telephone interview, Bismel, who's 20, said that his brothers, aged 8 and 11, and three cousins were foraging for firewood when they were attacked. He said the area had never experienced such casualties during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, but that 200 "innocent people" had died since the coalition invaded Afghanistan in late 2001.
Bismel said that after the incident Tuesday, coalition soldiers came to the main town in the district and said, "We have killed al Qaida." News reports said that hundreds of locals had staged a protest against the killings, with chants of "Death to America."
Last week, in a different part of Kunar province, residents and the Afghan government claimed that a coalition operation had left 65 civilians dead. The coalition says that only insurgents were killed in that incident.
Karzai, who's been openly critical of coalition actions, said in a statement that "unjustifiable operations and bombings" were daily occurrences and the coalition should focus instead on the "havens of terrorists," pointing at insurgent sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.
"Is this the way to fight terrorism and maintain stability in Afghanistan?" he said.
Since Petraeus took command last summer, the coalition has been more aggressive in going after the Taliban. Critics say the approach puts civilians at risk.
A recent United Nations report found that insurgents caused three-quarters of civilian casualties. The Taliban have launched a vicious campaign against civilian targets in recent weeks, including bombing sports events and shopping centers.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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