- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KABUL, AfghanistanAfghanistan’s president on Tuesday ordered NATO to stop bombing homes, citing the risk of civilian casualties and putting him on a collision course with his Western protectors who insist the attacks are an essential weapon and will continue.

It was Hamid Karzai’s strongest-ever statement against alliance airstrikes and further complicated a difficult relationship with the Obama administration as it prepares a troop drawdown in the increasingly unpopular war.

Karzai’s remarks were prompted by a recent air attack that mistakenly killed a group of children and women in southern Helmand province. Karzai declared it would be the last.

“From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed,” Karzai told reporters in Kabul.

Ordering airstrikes is a command decision in Afghanistan, where NATO spokeswoman Maj. Sunset Belinsky insisted they would continue.

“Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structures,” Belinsky said. “But when the insurgents use civilians as a shield and put our forces in a position where their only option is to use airstrikes, then they will take that option.”

In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu insisted NATO airstrikes are still essential. She said the alliance takes Karzai’s concerns very seriously and would continue to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. She said airstrikes on houses are coordinated with Afghan forces and “they continue to be necessary.”

“In many of these operations, Afghans are in the lead,” she said, refusing to comment on the recent raid in Helmand province.

Belinsky sought to soften the alliance rejection of Karzai’s directive.

“In the days and weeks ahead we will coordinate very closely with President Karzai to ensure that his intent is met,” she said. Karzai has previously made strong statements against certain military tactics, such as night raids, only to back away later.

Karzai’s spokesman said the president plans to stand firm on this issue, regardless of the fallout with NATO.

“The president was very clear today about the fact that bombardments on Afghan homes and Afghan civilians are unacceptable and must be stopped. There is no room for back and forth on this,” Waheed Omar said. “The president was clear in saying that any such strikes in the future will make the Afghan government react unilaterally.”

Karzai did not explain what his threat of “unilateral action” but said he plans to discuss it with NATO officials next week.

“If this is repeated, Afghanistan has a lot of ways of stopping it, but we don’t want to go there. We want NATO to stop the raids on its own,” he said.

NATO forces risk being seen as an “occupying force,” Karzai said, adopting the same phrase used by Taliban insurgents.

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