- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — Angered by civilian casualties, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday that he no longer will allow NATO airstrikes on houses, issuing his strongest statement yet against attacks that the military alliance says are vital to its war on Taliban insurgents.

NATO countered that airstrikes on houses are essential and will continue, setting up a possible confrontation with Mr. Karzai.

The president’s remarks followed a recent strike that mistakenly killed a group of children and women in southern Helmand province. Mr. Karzai declared it would be the last.

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

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

“Coalition forces constantly strive to reduce the chance of civilian casualties and damage to structures,” Maj. 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 Mr. 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. She would not comment specifically on the recent raid in Helmand province.

Maj. Belinsky also offered a conciliatory tone. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will coordinate very closely with President Karzai to ensure that his intent is met,” she said.

Mr. Karzai previously has made strong statements against certain military tactics, such as night raids, only to back away from them later.

If Mr. Karzai holds to what sounds like an order to international troops to abandon most airstrikes, it could bring the Afghan government into direct conflict with its international allies.

Mr. 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.”

NATO airstrikes target Taliban and other militants in towns and villages. The international force has scaled back such strikes because of worries that civilians could be inside targeted buildings, but it has maintained that they are still an essential tool because they are often more precise and can be less costly in casualties on both sides than ground operations.

It is unclear whether Mr. Karzai has the power to order an end to such strikes. NATO and U.S. forces are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate.

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