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NATO Disputes Karzai's Claim Its Rocket Killed 52 Civilians

The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is disputing a claim by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that a NATO rocket attack in southern Helmand province last Friday killed 52 civilians.

In a statement issued Monday, ISAF spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said a joint investigation by NATO and the Afghan government has thus far revealed "no evidence of civilians injured or killed."

Mr. Karzai said Monday that an investigation by the Afghan intelligence service found that a NATO rocket hit a home in the Sangin district of Helmand province.

Afghan officials say the civilians had taken refuge in a house to escape fighting between NATO-led forces and Taliban insurgents.

But ISAF's Admiral Smith said any report of alleged civilian casualties in Rigi village is "completely unfounded."

There was no immediate explanation for the conflicting accounts between the alliance and Mr. Karzai.

The alliance said a joint international and Afghan force came under attack from insurgents near Rigi and that NATO forces responded with attack helicopters and missiles, which it says struck the intended target. At least six insurgents, including a Taliban commander, were reported killed.

Civilian casualties caused by foreign troops are a major cause of friction between Mr. Karzai and his Western allies.

Also Monday, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff met with tribal leaders in Kandahar city. Admiral Mike Mullen reassured them that the U.S. commitment to stabilize Afghanistan will last far beyond July 2011, when U.S. troops are set to begin withdrawing from the country. He said a surge of U.S.-led NATO troops in Kandahar will bring security to the area, but he acknowledged that violence likely will increase in the short term.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.