October 13, 2014 / 10:59 AM / 3 years ago

Afghan officials say air strike killed civilians, NATO says 'enemy'

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KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan official said a NATO air strike killed seven civilians in the country's east, including a nine-year-old child, but the international coalition said on Monday the strike killed eight militants who had fired on its forces.

Civilian casualties from air strikes remain a raw issue in the Afghan war, although U.N. statistics show the number killed has sharply dropped in recent years.

The deputy governor of Paktia province, Abdul Wali Sahi, said villagers brought seven bodies from the Udkey area of Gardez city to the provincial capital, saying they were all civilians killed in an air strike.

Sahi said an investigation has been launched, but that initial reports suggested the villagers were gathering firewood on a mountainside for the upcoming winter on Sunday when they were fired on.

"They had shovels in their hands, and coalition forces maybe thought they were insurgents," Sahi said.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition, Lt. Col. David Olson, said he could confirm a "precision air strike" in the area after coalition forces came under fire.

"The result of this strike was eight enemy killed," he said.

The Taliban insurgency and the militant Haqqani network are both active in Paktia province.

It is often difficult to immediately determine whether those killed in air strikes are civilians or insurgents. The U.N. estimated in July that air strikes accounted for 1 percent of the nearly 5,000 deaths and injuries of civilians in the first half of 2014.

Civilian casualties were one of the reasons that former President Hamid Karzai cited for refusing to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States to allow a small U.S. force to stay after the end of this year.

Karzai's successor, President Ashraf Ghani, signed the security deal the day after taking office.

Reporting by: Samihullah Paiwand and Kay Johnson, writing by Mirwais Harooni. Editing by Kay Johnson

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