NATO to probe whether deadly Afghan airstrike killed civilians

KABUL, Afghanistan — A NATO airstrike early Friday on two fuel tank trucks hijacked by insurgents may have killed as many as 90 people in the northern Kunduz province, where the Taliban have expanded their influence in recent months.

There were conflicting reports Friday about the number of dead and about their ties to the insurgency. The governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, put the death toll at about 90 — up to 60 armed insurgents and about 30 civilians who he said supported the Taliban.

Omar said that several children of the two insurgent truck drivers had been in the vehicles, and died in the attack. The Associated Press reported that a 10-year-old boy was among the wounded.

A police official in the province said Friday that the death toll appeared to be less than 60.

The attack occurred as the trucks were stopped at a river crossing about 10 miles south of the city of Kunduz. "This is an area under Taliban control, and we cannot go there," Omar said in an interview Friday.

In a statement Friday, NATO officials confirmed the strike and said that the bombing had taken place only after surveillance of the insurgents had concluded that there were no civilians in the area.

Omar said that civilian supporters of the Taliban-led insurgency had gathered around the trucks, however, and were hoping to get fuel.

NATO officials acknowledged that claims of civilian deaths had been received, and there will be an investigation in conjunction with Afghan officials.

The bombing came during a volatile period in the war in Afghanistan, with the Taliban-led insurgency seeking to expand its power as allegations of voting fraud have slowed the effort to select a new president.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has announced a major effort to reduce civilian casualties, which have been a big concern of the Afghan people. Thursday's attack once again puts the spotlight on the human toll of NATO's airstrikes.

"ISAF will do whatever is necessary to help the community, including medical assistance and evacuation as requested," Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the NATO force, said Friday. The ISAF "regrets any unnecessary loss of human life and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused to our Afghan friends."

The U.S. Embassy also released a statement Friday about the airstrike.

"The United States has seen the reports that civilians may have been injured or killed following an ISAF airstrike in Kunduz this morning. We await the results of the joint investigation into what occurred, being carried out by ISAF and the Afghan government, and we send our condolences to those families who lost loved ones."

Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.