KABUL, Jun 10 – A US air strike killed five NATO coalition soldiers in an apparent “friendly fire” accident during clashes with Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, days ahead of the presidential election.
Local police and the Afghan army said that the NATO troops, as well as one Afghan soldier, were killed in the restive province of Zabul when air support was unleashed to try to beat back insurgent fighters.
Friendly fire incidents have been rare in Afghanistan in recent years, though five Afghan soldiers were killed in a NATO air strike in the eastern province of Logar in March.
Afghanistan is braced for Saturday’s run-off presidential election which the Taliban have vowed to target and Monday night’s joint NATO-Afghan operation was tasked with providing increased security ahead of polling day.
“The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces,” NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
“Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation.”
In line with coalition policy, it did not reveal the nationalities of the victims, but US officials quoted by the Washington Post said the NATO soldiers were American.
“I can confirm that five foreign troops were killed as a result of their own bombardment in Arghandab district,” Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewani, police chief of Zabul province, told AFP.
Mohsin Khan, spokesman for the Afghan army’s 205 division, which is deployed in Zabul, also said it was a friendly fire error.
“Our forces were jointly engaged in fighting with militants, and foreign forces called in air support and they mistakenly bombed friendly positions,” Khan said.
“I can confirm ISAF suffered casualties. We also lost one solider and one was wounded.”
An ISAF spokesman declined to comment on reports that “friendly fire” was the cause of the deaths.
The US-led force is winding down operations in Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting Taliban insurgents, and the number of soldiers out on patrol has fallen rapidly in the last year.
The deaths were the worst single incident for the NATO force since five British soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash on April 26.
All of the 50,000 remaining NATO combat troops are due to leave the country by the end of this year, though a small US deployment will remain until the end of 2016 if a long-delayed deal is signed between Washington and Kabul.
The south and east of Afghanistan are the most violent parts of the country as the Taliban wage a guerrilla war against the Kabul government and remaining NATO troops.
The second round election will determine the successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.
Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright victory in April’s first round and will face former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani in the poll.
Late last month President Barack Obama outlined the US strategy to end America’s longest war, saying that the 32,000-strong US deployment in Afghanistan would be scaled back to around 9,800 by the start of 2015.
Those forces will be halved by the end of 2015 before eventually being reduced to a normal embassy presence with a security assistance component by the end of 2016.