KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Afghan presidential delegation looking into reports that up to 10 civilians were accidentally killed by U.S. troops earlier this week said today that it had so far confirmed at least eight deaths -- all schoolboys ages 12 to 17.
That contradicts initial findings by the NATO force regarding Sunday's strike in Kunar, a remote northeastern province. Western military officials earlier reported nine killed, all adult males and all insurgents, and said today that the incident remains under investigation.
Civilian deaths and injuries are one of the most contentious issues between foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai. Asadullah Wafa, who heads the investigative panel that traveled to Kunar on the president's orders, reported that the boys' bodies were found in a single village home in Kunar's Narang district, and that all were members of the same extended family. He indicated there were other remains found in the house that had not yet been identified.
Wafa suggested that an informant had provided misleading information to Western forces, triggering the strike. There have been past instances of villagers trying to settle scores with rival clans or tribes by giving foreign troops false accounts of insurgent activity.
Karzai continues to be a harsh critic of foreign forces' accidental killings of civilians, although the number of such deaths has fallen sharply since July, when U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, issued new rules of engagement meant to protect civilian lives.
Insurgents are believed responsible for about 70% of civilian deaths this year, but in the recent past, the proportion of such deaths caused by Western troops -- as opposed to those blamed on Taliban fighters -- has been considerably higher than now. More than 2,000 civilians have died in fighting this year, according to United Nations figures -- the highest number since the start of the war in 2001.
Western and Afghan officials appearing at a joint news conference in Kabul offered contradictory accounts of the Sunday raid that led to the deaths.
NATO, which had originally denied carrying out operations in the area at the time of the deaths, now says a joint Afghan-Western force carried out the strike. But a spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, Gen. Mohammed Azimi, told reporters today that only U.S. special forces had been involved.
Special forces, which generally operate under a separate command structure, have been responsible for a disproportionate share of civilian casualties in the course of the conflict. Many Afghans fear that civilian casualties will rise in the coming year, in part due to the expected arrival of about 37,000 more foreign troops, 30,000 of them American.
Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said Western forces do all they can to safeguard civilians, while Taliban fighters kill indiscriminately, especially with roadside bombs.
"Our enemy, the insurgents, have very little regard for the Afghan people," he said.