A U.S.-led coalition air strike in eastern Afghanistan killed at least seven children along with several militants. The U.S military says it is saddened by the deaths in what it says is another example of al-Qaida terrorists using innocent civilians to shield themselves. Also, local Afghan officials say up to 60 civilians and more than 50 Taleban insurgents have been killed during fierce fighting in the past three days in southern Uruzgan province. From Islamabad, VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports the civilian deaths are fueling opposition to the U.S.-backed central government.
The air strike occurred Sunday in Paktika Province, not far from the Pakistan border. U.S. officials say the target, including a mosque and religious school or madrassa, was a confirmed al-Qaida safe house.
Coalition Spokesman Major Chris Belcher says there was absolutely no indication that there were children inside the compound when they ordered the attack, and that local witnesses confirmed al-Qaida fighters were present.
"Coalition forces confirmed the presence of nefarious activity occurring at the site before getting approval to conduct an air strike on the location," he said.
Local Afghan officials immediately condemned the attack and are calling for an investigation.
The incident comes as the rising number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is provoking a major anti-government backlash. Protesters, many chanting death to America, are now a common sight in major cities and towns across the country.
NATO officials say Taleban militants killed almost 700 civilians last year, causing the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths.
But security experts say that public attention remains fixated on U.S. and NATO forces, and by extension, Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai.
Norine MacDonald is the Afghan-based president of the Senlis Council, which researches Afghan development and security issues. She says every time a civilian dies, popular support for President Karzai plummets.
"If we are here to support the Karzai government we should not be alienating his political base," she said. "If we do not care about it from a humanitarian point of view, the suffering of these people, we should care from the point of view of the politics of keeping Karzai in power and stabilizing his political base."
MacDonald says the number of civilian deaths caused by coalition forces increased significantly when the hunt for Taleban insurgents in Southern Afghanistan intensified.
"NATO is doing a great job, but they have insufficient forces there to actually win the battles on the ground in the villages without air support," she said. "Well it is very hard to avoid civilian casualties when you are bombing a village."