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NATO kills 5 Afghan soldiers in mistaken airstrike

KABUL, Afghanistan — A botched NATO airstrike killed five Afghan soldiers early Wednesday, highlighting continued weak coordination between international troops and the local security forces they are striving to build.

An Afghan defense official condemned the "friendly fire" deaths in the eastern province of Ghazni. They came as three more American troops were reported killed in the south and Britain announced it would turn over control of a violence-plagued southern district to U.S. forces.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the newly arrived commander of international forces in Afghanistan, issued personal condolences to the families of the dead Afghan soldiers, a spokesman said.

A joint Afghan-international investigation was continuing into how the mistake happened, said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a NATO spokesman.

"We were obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area," Blotz said, suggesting there was a failure in communication.

So many Afghan security forces are being recruited and trained so fast — the allies set an interim goal of expanding the Afghan army from 85,000 in 2009 to 134,000 troops by 2011 — that coordination is bound to lag behind, Afghan analyst Haroun Mir said.

Wednesday's airstrike is unlikely to damage NATO's relations in Afghanistan as much as unintended civilian deaths do, said Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy studies. That's because soldiers understand that "friendly fire" is an inevitable part of war, he said.

In April, German troops in the northern province of Kunduz opened fire on a vehicle deemed suspicious, killing six Afghan soldiers. Another mistaken-identity airstrike by coalition forces in 2008 killed nine Afghan troops in the eastern province of Khost.

In Wednesday's incident, the Afghan soldiers were launching an ambush before dawn against insurgents, who were reportedly on the move, when NATO aircraft began firing on them without warning, said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman.

Five Afghan soldiers died and two were wounded in the airstrike in Ghazni's Andar district, he said.

NATO later said that one of its patrols in the area mistook the Afghan soldiers for insurgents and targeted them with precision-guided munitions.

Western military officials also had losses of their own to report: the deaths of three American soldiers a day earlier in a single explosion in the south. Insurgents have been using massive IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which can penetrate many of the armored vehicles used by NATO forces. As a result, it is not unusual for Western troops to die in "clusters" of three or more.

Last month was the deadliest for international forces since the war began, with 103 killed, including 60 Americans.

The south is the most lethal battlefield for Americans and the other national contingents serving there, primarily Canadian and British troops.

Britain said Wednesday it would soon turn over one of the most dangerous districts of Helmand province in the south to American forces. The Sangin valley has been the deadliest area for British forces, accounting for 99 of its 312 soldiers killed since 2001. Britain has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, most based in Helmand.

In London, Liam Fox, Britain's new defense secretary, told Parliament that British forces in Helmand have long been "too thinly spread." Britain's military said U.S. forces would move into Sangin by October.

Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the deputy commander in Afghanistan, described the move as an effort to consolidate and better organize forces in Helmand. He played down suggestions that the move was in response to losses incurred by the 800-man British force in Sangin.

The move will leave U.S. Marines in control of the northern Helmand River Valley, British forces toward the middle and U.S. forces in the south. The move will concentrate British troops "where we need them most," Rodriguez said.

Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

NATO kills 5 Afghan soldiers in mistaken airstrike 07/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 8, 2010 8:02am]

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