KABUL - NATO acknowledged Wednesday that four unarmed Afghans who were killed this week when a military convoy opened fire on their vehicle were all civilians, correcting an earlier claim that two of the dead were "known insurgents."
The shooting Monday night in Khost province sparked an immediate outcry from the victims' family, who insisted that all four were civilians driving home from a volleyball game. The youngest boy was just 13, said Rahmatullah Mansour, whose two sons and two nephews were killed in the shooting.
On Wednesday, NATO said it had described two of the victims as insurgents because their fingerprints matched those in a military biometric database. But their presence in the database does not necessarily mean they were insurgents.
"The term 'insurgent' should not have been used," NATO said in a statement. Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, confirmed all four were civilians.
NATO said it fired on the car because it kept accelerating toward the military convoy despite attempts to flag the vehicle down by flashing lights and firing warning shots. The victims were unarmed and no weapons were found in the car.
Civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. and other international forces are believed to fuel resentment of the Afghan government and generate sympathy for the insurgency. Earlier this month, U.S. forces fired on a civilian bus outside the southern city of Kandahar, killing four Afghans and stoking anger over the international presence.
Mansour said that the victims in Monday's shooting were his sons Faizullah, 13, and Nasratullah, 17; and nephews Maiwand and Amirullah, both 18. He said all were students except Amirullah, who was a police officer.
"Nobody can imagine what is going on in my family," Mansour told The Associated Press. "My two brothers and I lost sons. It was difficult even to recognize their bodies because there were bullet holes in their face, chest, hands and feet."
The United Nations has called for better protection of Afghan civilians after the civilian death toll in violence rose last year to its highest level since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime. Some 2,412 civilians were killed in 2009 - a 14 percent increase over the 2,118 who died in 2008, according to the U.N.
Nearly 70 percent of civilian deaths last year, or 1,630, were caused by the insurgents, the U.N. said.
International and Afghan forces, meanwhile, continued operations targeting individuals and networks responsible for making and placing roadside bombs responsible for most military casualties and large numbers of civilian deaths.
NATO said a suspected Taliban bomb-maker was captured in Kandahar's Arghandab district in a raid Tuesday night, along with nearly a dozen other suspected insurgents.
One person was detained in the operation.
On Wednesday, the Afghan army destroyed a cache of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a controlled explosion in Kabul province. Ammonium nitrate is widely used by the Taliban as an ingredient of roadside bombs, and its use by farmers has been banned in Afghanistan.
A day earlier, Afghan border police inspecting vehicles along Kandahar's frontier with Pakistan discovered more than 3,200 pounds (1,450 kilograms) of ammonium nitrate along with 12 sticks of a substance believed to be TNT and 800 blasting caps, NATO said.
Also Wednesday, Afghan and NATO officials announced that authorities captured a local Taliban commander, Mullah Faqir, earlier this month after a gunbattle in Uruzgan province.
He was believed to have been responsible for attacks against local and coalition forces, said Gen. Juma Gul Himat, the provincial police chief.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Christopher Bodeen in Kabul contributed to this report.