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.
NATO said coalition forces beat back an attack on a combat outpost in Paktika province's Barmal district along the mountainous border with Pakistan, killing at least 20 insurgents. Troops first returned fire with mortars and small arms before calling in an air assault, the alliance said in a statement, adding that no NATO or Afghan government forces were killed.
In Ghazni province's Andar district, five other insurgents were killed in an airstrike as they were placing a roadside bomb, NATO said.
In volatile Helmand province to the south, coalition and Afghan forces killed 11 insurgents and captured four, including a regional Taliban shadow district governor, Mulla Sayed Gul, responsible for ordering attacks and dispensing funds, the provincial government said.
Other insurgents were killed and captured in Paktika, one of several eastern provinces where the Taliban and their allies maintain cross-border routes to smuggle in weapons and militants, many of them linked to al Qaeda and recruited from their homelands in the Persian Gulf region and North Africa.
Estimates of the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan vary, with the vast majority of insurgents still drawn from Afghanistan's multitude of tribes, especially in the Pashtun-dominated south.