- Associated Press - Monday, August 23, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO said an airstrike in northern Afghanistan on Thursday killed about a dozen insurgents, but President Hamid Karzai said the victims were campaign workers seeking votes in this month’s parliamentary elections.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, meanwhile, arrived in the Afghan capital for meetings with Mr. Karzai and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Pentagon chief also plans to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

NATO said its airstrike on a car in northern Takhar province’s normally quiet Rustaq district killed or wounded as many as 12 insurgents, including a Taliban commander and a local head of an allied insurgent group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

However, the office of Mr. Karzai — who repeatedly warns that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts — issued a statement condemning the attack, saying 10 campaign workers were killed and two wounded.

Takhar Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said the car in which candidate Abdul Wahid Khorasani were riding was fired on by helicopters following an initial pass by fighter jets. He called the incident an obvious mistake, saying there were no Uzbek militants, foreigners or members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the convoy.

“There aren’t even any Taliban in this area,” Mr. Taqwa said. “They were all working on Mr. Khorasani’s campaign.”

A spokesman for the military alliance said it was aware of the claims that civilians were killed and would conduct a thorough investigation.

“What I can say is these vehicles were nowhere near a populated area, and we’re confident this strike hit only the targeted vehicle after days of tracking the occupants’ activity,” said Maj. Gen. David Garza, the deputy chief of staff for joint operations in Afghanistan.

Another NATO spokesman said the vehicle hit had stopped at least twice before the attack, during which men armed with rifles were observed exiting it before re-entering.

“We stand by the information in the release, and it is important to note that there was considerable time spent watching and waiting prior to the engagement,” James Judge, the spokesman, said.

A local politician who had knowledge of the incident but who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter said the attack may have been tied to rivalries among ethnic Uzbek politicians in the province.

Afghan politicians have in the past been accused of deliberately feeding false information to foreign forces in hopes of prompting attacks and eliminating rivals. Political violence is on the rise ahead of elections Sept. 18, with at least three candidates and five campaign workers killed.

Also Thursday, two American troops died in fighting, while NATO and local officials said coalition and Afghan forces killed dozens of insurgents in a series of ground and air engagements.

NATO said one U.S. service member was killed in the country’s east and the other in the south — regions where fighting between the coalition and Taliban insurgents has been at its most intense. No other details were given in keeping with standard NATO procedure.

The deaths bring to three the number of U.S. service members killed in September and follow a spike in casualties during the last two weeks of August that saw the monthly total rise to 55. The August figure was still below the back-to-back monthly records of 66 in July and 60 in June. Total U.S. combat deaths from January through August of this year — 316 — exceeded the previous annual record of 304 for the whole of 2009.

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