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NATO strike kills at least one child in Afghanistan

By Mustafa Andalib

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A NATO helicopter killed at least one child and nine suspected Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's east on Saturday, officials and local residents said.

Last month Afghan President Hamid Karzai forbade Afghan forces from calling for NATO air support and forbade international forces from using air strikes "in Afghan homes or villages" after Afghan forces called in a strike that killed 10 civilians.

NATO initially said that Saturday's strike was in support of Afghan troops - which would be in contravention of the president's orders - but later said new information showed the helicopter had struck the insurgents separately.

"This was an independently acquired and engaged target," said ISAF spokesman Major Adam Wojack.

There were conflicting reports on the death toll from the air strike. A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of two children. One was in school uniform. Local elder Jan Mohammad and other residents said he was killed in the air strike.

The reporter also saw the hand and foot of a toddler at the site of the air strike, but the circumstances of the death were not immediately clear.

Senior police detective Colonel Mohammad Hussain said nine Taliban and one school-age child were killed in the air strike. He also said a woman was killed and eight civilians were wounded in a firefight between Afghan security forces and insurgents.

The deaths, on the outskirts of the capital of Ghazni province, will reopen an often heated debate between those who blame NATO air strikes for civilian deaths and others who argue NATO air support is vital to protect Afghan security forces.

A statement from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said: "We are aware of reports of civilian casualties resulting from an engagement in Ghazni district, Ghazni province, this morning in which an Afghan security force was attacked by insurgents and returned fire.

"We can also confirm that later in the morning, in the same area, an attack helicopter engaged a group of insurgents with direct fire, killing or wounding several."

"We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously. Afghan and ISAF officials are assessing the incident," the ISAF statement said.

Civilian casualties - particularly those caused by air strikes - are a significant source of friction between Karzai and his international allies as the United States and Afghanistan negotiate over the size of a future American military presence following the departure of most international troops by the end of 2014.

Some Afghan officials say privately that limiting air strikes exposes the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces to greater danger as they take over the responsibilities of international forces.

Foreign air power is especially critical to cover the mountainous regions near the Pakistani border.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Stephen Powell)

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