NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen yesterday pledged a full inquiry into an airstrike that killed as many as 90 people in Afghanistan, when the alliance's war planes destroyed two of their own petrol tankers hijacked by the Taliban.
The strike in the northern province of Kunduz triggered fears of a large civilian death count, something NATO has been struggling to prevent. It is concerned that it would further undermine its already struggling counter-insurgency strategy.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, announced that he was creating his own panel to look into the attack, saying: "Targeting civilians is unacceptable for us."
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, also called for an urgent investigation. "It's important that we are very open and clear about what happened and make sure that it doesn't happen again," he said.
A German army spokesman said that at least 56 of the dead were Taliban fighters. The governor of Kunduz province, on the border with Tajikistan, said that about 90 people died, and a NATO spokesman admitted that a large number of wounded civilians were arriving at nearby hospitals.
"Based on the information we are receiving from Kunduz, it would appear that many civilian casualties are being evacuated and treated in the local hospitals. There is perhaps a direct link with the incident that has occurred around the two fuel trucks," said Brigadier General Eric Tremblay.
The civilians had apparently come out to take free petrol that the insurgents were offering from the hijacked trucks, one of which had apparently got stuck in mud on a river bank, when the NATO planes struck. A spokesman for the health ministry in Kabul said that as many as 250 villages had come out of their homes to take advantage of the handout.
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NATO's US commander has tried to shift the emphasis away from attacks that cause massive civilian casualties and alienate public opinion, and more towards protecting the population from the Taliban. Airstrikes are not supposed to be launched unless it is clear that the target is purely military.
The deadly strike coincided with Gordon Brown's policy speech on the war, in which he said Britain is determined to keep its forces in Afghanistan despite fading public support for the eight-year conflict.
The Prime Minister's speech was also overshadowed by the resignation the night before of a defence aide, Eric Joyce, a former Army major, over the Government's handling of the conflict.
Taliban fighters hijacked the two tankers, contracted to ship fuel to German forces, late on Thursday night at a river crossing near the village of Omar Khmel, Afghan police said.
Locals said that civilians had been horribly injured in the explosion. "Nobody was in one piece. Hands, legs and body parts were scattered everywhere. Those who were away from the fuel tanker were badly burnt," said one villager, Mohammad Daud.
"My brother was burnt when the aircraft bombed the fuel tankers. I don't know whether he is dead or alive," said Ghulam Yahya, a distraught relative who along with dozens of others had gathered outside Kunduz Central Hospital in the provincial capital.
Convoys are one of the vulnerable aspects of the NATO operation. On Thursday, a French soldier was killed and nine wounded by a roadside bomb while scouting a route for a logistics convoy. Three Afghan security guards were also killed when a suicide car bomber rammed the convoy they were escorting in the normally quiet west of the country.