Seven children were killed in an air strike on an Afghan religious school being used as an alleged Al-Qaeda safe house, the US-led coalition said Monday, raising fresh concerns over civilian casualties.
"We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building," coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher said.
The coalition "confirmed the presence of nefarious activity" before getting approval to attack the compound, which included a mosque and a religious school, it said.
"Early reporting has that seven children at the madrassa died as a result of the strike," the coalition statement said, adding "several militants" were also killed.
"This is another example of Al-Qaeda using the protective status of a mosque, as well as innocent civilians, to shield themselves," Belcher said.
"We are truly sorry for the innocent lives lost in this attack."
The United Nations said it sent a team to investigate the incident in Paktika's Zarghun Shah district about 180 kilometres (120 miles) south of Kabul.
"Children in Afghanistan are very vulnerable," UNICEF child protection chief Noriko Izumi told reporters in Kabul.
It follows a suicide bombing in the southern town of Tirin Kot on Friday that police said killed five children aged about 12. Two schoolgirls were killed in a June 9 drive-by shooting the government blamed on the "enemies of Afghanistan".
Foreign troops have been criticised for killing civilians in their operations but the vast majority of such deaths are caused by insurgent attacks.
Up to 380 civilians were killed in insurgency-linked violence in the first four months of this year, according to the United Nations.
NATO nations participating in the International Security Assistance Force that works alongside the coalition expressed alarm last week at the number of civilian fatalities.
Senior ISAF officials said at the weekend they did all they could to avoid civilian casualties.
"In most cases I have made the decision not to attack lawful targets due to the risk of civilian casualties," one official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
In other incidents linked to the insurgency, the coalition said its soldiers and Afghan forces had "killed several dozen enemy combatants" in a battle Sunday involving fighter aircraft in the southern province of Helmand.
Two coalition soldiers were wounded but their nationalities were not disclosed. The Afghan defence ministry said one of its troopers was killed and another wounded in the same area over the past 24 hours.
Several more militants were killed in the adjoining province of Kandahar Sunday, said the coalition which spearheaded the invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda.
A Dutch soldier aged 44 was killed and three were wounded Monday in intense fighting in the southeastern province of Uruzgan, the Dutch defence ministry said.
In Kabul, authorities probing a suicide attack on a police bus which killed 35 people Sunday, the deadliest blast of the Taliban insurgency, said they had arrested a man with Taliban links who allegedly filmed the blast.
The man had pictures of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah on his mobile phone, city criminal investigation department chief Alishah Paktiawal told AFP on Monday.
The suspect also had documents linking him to the explosion, which the Taliban said was carried out by one of its fighters who had blown himself up on the bus in a busy part of the city.
Police said 35 people were killed, most of them police officers, making it the deadliest attack in insurgency.
Copyright © 2007 AFP