, KABUL, Mar 7 – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates offered a personal apology to President Hamid Karzai on Monday for the deaths of nine Afghan children in a NATO air strike which drew fury in Kabul.
"This breaks our heart," Gates told a news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, as Karzai looked on. The defence secretary also called the incident a setback for US relations with the Afghan people.
The comments on the first day of a two-day trip came after Karzai angrily rejected an apology from General David Petraeus, the US commander of international troops in Afghanistan, over the incident.
Nine young boys died in a NATO air strike targeting insurgents last week as they collected firewood in the eastern province of Kunar.
In response to Gates, Karzai said he respected the apology and called for civilian casualties to be halted altogether.
Gates also insisted that US troops will be "well-positioned" to start a limited withdrawal from Afghanistan in July as planned.
But he stressed the US was not pulling out altogether after July and would maintain unrelenting pressure on the Taliban.
Afghan forces are due to take control of security across the country in 2014, allowing foreign forces to leave.
In comments to reporters earlier, he stressed the help that the US was willing to give Afghanistan in future ahead of a planned handover of responsibility for security from international to Afghan forces in 2014.
"Here in Afghanistan, we\’re in the process right now of beginning a negotiation with the Afghan government for a long-term security partnership," he said.
"We are fully prepared to have a continuing presence here assisting the Afghans after 2014… obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today."
Civilian casualties from coalition military operations against Taliban insurgents have long been a source of friction between Kabul and its Western allies.
But Karzai\’s rejection of Petraeus\’s apology as "not enough" came at a particularly sensitive time for the military effort in Afghanistan, where 97,000 of the roughly 140,000 foreign troops are from the United States.
"Civilian casualties are a main cause of worsening the relationship between Afghanistan and the US," a statement from his office quoted Karzai as saying.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Kabul on Sunday to protest against the deaths, shouting slogans including "Death to America — death to the invaders".
Afghan forces are due to start taking responsibility for security in a limited number of areas from July, allowing foreign troop withdrawals to start ahead of 2014.
Karzai is expected to give details of where the transition process will start on March 21. The US has not yet announced how many troops it will initially withdraw.
Press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters travelling with Gates that this was "not a decision-making trip" but added: "This will certainly inform him (Gates) on making those decisions in coming months."
The defence secretary, who plans to step down this year, is also expected to visit troops in Afghanistan\’s south during the trip, as well as holding talks with Karzai, Petraeus and US Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.
Gates is due to travel to Germany and Brussels on Wednesday ahead of a meeting of NATO defence ministers from Thursday, where the war in Afghanistan and current crisis in Libya are expected to top the agenda.