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US Defense Secretary Expresses Regret for Afghan Civilian Deaths

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says American forces need to do more to prevent killing civilians during military strikes in Afghanistan. While the secretary was in Kabul, U.S. military chief Admiral Mike Mullen visited Islamabad for talks with officials who have protested U.S. attacks on targets inside Pakistan. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the ongoing controversy in Afghanistan over civilian deaths by offering his apologies and vowing to do more to prevent them in the future.

"I offer all Afghans my sincere condolences and personal regrets for the recent loss of innocent life as a result of coalition air strikes," Gates said. "While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is clear that we have to work even harder."

Top Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai have sharply criticized an increase in civilian deaths in recent weeks, in particular last months airstrike in Herat that Afghan and U.N. officials say killed more than 90 civilians - mostly women and children. The U.S. military says its investigation showed several civilians were among about 35 militants killed, but has promised to reopen an investigation.

Secretary Gates blamed this year's spike in violence on Taliban fighters adopting terrorist-style attacks on soft targets and more attacks by a variety of militant and criminal gangs all working to undermine the government.

He says Taliban militants have also used sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks. But he said the Pakistani military has recently begun to crack down on fighters in the country's autonomous tribal agencies.

"I think what we have seen and been pleased about is in recent weeks, the Pakistani army once again putting pressure in this area and it is my hope that we can work closely with the Pakistanis to prevent this from being a safe haven that threatens both Afghanistan and a democratic Pakistan," Gates.

The U.S. military chief, Admiral Mike Mullen, met with Pakistan's army chief and the prime minister in Islamabad for talks, including the security situation in the tribal areas.

Top military and civilian officials in Pakistan have strongly protested a U.S. ground raid last month against a suspected militant target on Pakistani territory near the Afghan border. The raid appeared to be the first of its kind, and drew rebukes from civilian and military officials vowing to defend Pakistan's sovereignty at all costs.

The U.S. embassy released a statement saying Admiral Mullen had an extremely frank, positive and constructive meeting with General Ashfaq Kayani and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The statement said Mullen also vowed to respect Pakistan's sovereignty.