The US military faced mounting criticism as it began its investigation into the accidental killing of nine children in an air attack on an alleged terrorist in Afghanistan.
The United Nations called for a swift inquiry and its results to be made public since the blunder "adds to a sense of fear and insecurity" in the country following similar killings of innocent civilians.
The children died along with a suspected terrorist in a coalition air attack in southeast Ghazni province which has been troubled by attacks blamed on Taliban militants.
"Following the attack, coalition ground forces searching the area found the bodies of both the intended target and those of nine children nearby," the US military said in a statement early Sunday from the coalition's Bagram Air Base headquarters north of Kabul.
Coalition aircraft had opened fire on the suspect at about 10:30 am (0600 GMT) Saturday in an isolated rural area south of the town of Ghazni, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of the capital.
The suspect was believed to be responsible for recently killing two contractors working on the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat ring road, the military said without giving any details of the killings.
A commission was being set up to investigate the deaths, the coalition said, adding that its forces "follow stringent rules of engagement to specifically avoid this type of incident while continuing to target terrorists" in Afghanistan.
"Coalition forces regret the loss of any innocent life."
US-led troops were remaining in the area and would "make every effort to assist the families of the innocent casualties and determine the cause of the civilian deaths," the military said.
However UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said in a statement that the protection of civilians is an "obligation" that any military organization must have.
"The special representative and the United Nations family in Afghanistan have been profoundly distressed at the news that nine children were killed Saturday in Ghazni as a result of coalition military action," said UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, reading a statement to reporters from the envoy.
"This incident, which follows similar incidents, adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country," he said.
Washington has previously said it is not its policy to offer compensation to families of innocent victims killed in a "war zone."
"We are aware that caution is taken but these kinds of mistakes ... do have a negative impact among the population. We have seen this before so it's not as if were speaking without experience," de Almeida e Silva said.
Scores of civilians have been killed by the coalition since the start of the campaign against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan in October 2001.
Last month Afghan officials claimed eight civilians were killed in a coalition bombing raid in northeast Afghanistan.
Copyright 2003 AFP