NATO claims responsibility for 12 Afghan civilian deaths

KABUL: The NATO force in Afghanistan Sunday said 12 Afghan civilians were killed when at least one rocket missed its intended target during a major offensive against the Taliban.

"Two rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launched at insurgents firing upon Afghan and ISAF forces impacted approximately 300 metres off their intended target, killing 12 civilians in Nad Ali district, Helmand province today," NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.

"ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal conveyed his apologies to President Hamid Karzai for this unfortunate incident," it said.

The use of HIMARS had been suspended while an investigation was conducted, the statement said.

"The original target of the two rockets was a compound where insurgents were delivering accurate, direct fire on an Afghan-ISAF joint team," it said, adding: "An Afghan National Army soldier and ISAF service member had been injured by the insurgent fire."

McChrystal's apology follows a statement by Karzai that 10 Afghan civilians had been killed when a rocket hit their home in Marjah, in Nad Ali district, focus of Operation Mushtarak, which aims to flush out militants.

The NATO and Karzai statements appeared to be talking about the same incident.

US Marines are leading a force of 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops in the operation, which was launched before dawn on Saturday to clear a path for the Afghan government to re-establish control of the opium-producing area.

Karzai on Saturday warned troops to take all measures necessary to protect civilians.

"We deeply regret this tragic loss of life," the ISAF statement quoted McChrystal as saying.

"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. We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents," he said.

McChrystal commands 113,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.