A NATO air strike destroyed a mud-brick home in the village of Jabar, killing nine members ofan Afghan family during a clash between Western troops and militants, Afghan officials and relativessaid Monday.
It was the second report in two days of civilian deaths at the hands of Western forces. On Sunday, U.S. marines fired on cars and pedestrians as they fled a suicide attack. Up to 10 Afghans died in that violence, and President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings.
Both times, the U.S military blamed militants for putting innocent lives in danger.
But Karzai has repeatedly pleaded for Western troops to show more restraint amid concern that civilian deaths shake domestic support for the foreign military involvement that the president needs to prop up his weak government — increasingly under threat from a resurgent Taliban.
In the latest incident, militants late Sunday fired on a U.S. base in Kapisa province, just north of Kabul, prompting the air strike on Jabar village.
The strike hit a civilian home, killing four women, four children between the ages of six months and five years, and one elderly man, said Gulam Nabi, a relative of the victims.
Sayad Mohammad Dawood Hashimmi, Kapisa's deputy governor, confirmed the nine deaths, as did an Interior Ministry official in Kabul, who asked not to be identified because the ministry had not yet prepared a statement.
A U.S. military statement said two men with automatic rifles were seen heading into a compound of five homes after a rocket attack on a U.S. base in the area.
"These men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces," said Lt.-Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman. "We observed the men entering a compound and that compound was targeted and hit by an air strike."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said coalition forces will always respond in self-defence when fired upon: "It is often the enemy that is putting innocent peoples' lives in danger by where they're conducting these attacks on our forces."
The statement said coalition forces "dropped two 2,000-pound bombs" on the compound after a rocket was fired at the base and armed militants were seen moving into the compound. The U.S. base in Kapisa is about 80 kilometres northeast of Kabul, the capital.
An AP reporter at the scene said a large mud home in a compound of five buildings was destroyed, leaving only bits of mud.
Among those killed were Gulam Nabi's parents, his sister, his nephew, and four of the extended family's youngest children.
Retaliation for suicide bombing sparks protests
The news of the air strike came a day after wounded Afghans and witnesses said U.S. marines fired on civilians after a suicide bombing in eastern Nangahar province. The violence, which left up to 10 Afghans dead and 34 wounded, sparked angry anti-U.S. demonstrations by hundreds of Afghan men.
A U.S. official called AP on Monday to say that military authorities believe Sunday's suicide bombing was a "clearly planned, orchestrated attack" that included enemy fire on the convoy and a pre-planned demonstration.
The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said authorities believed that criminal elements orchestrated the attack and demonstration and that it was related to Afghan efforts to eradicate the region's profitable opium poppy crop.
He said there was "no doubt in the minds of marines on the ground that they were being fired on." The official said Afghan casualties could have been caused by militants or by U.S. gunfire.
However, two senior provincial Afghan officials who also asked not to be named said they had found no evidence to corroborate the U.S. military's claim that militants fired on the Americans. An AP reporter who spoke to more than a dozen witnesses could not find anyone who said they saw or heard incoming militant gunfire.
Akhtyar Gul, who ran outside his home after the suicide bombing, said he saw American troops firing in many directions, and that some bullets struck the wall of his home. He said he saw a woman working in a nearby field struck by American gunfire.
"There was nobody on the street, nobody on the road to fire on the Americans," said Gul. "The only firing that came toward us was from these American vehicles."