By Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’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.

Even so, Karzai’s history suggests that he may walk back Tuesday’s remarks.

Last week, Karzai ordered that only Afghan troops should carry out night raids — which often upset Afghans who say they violate their privacy and often target the wrong people. Karzai later relaxed his stance, reminding NATO that Afghans need to be in control and in the lead for such raids.

Last year, Karzai said he was kicking all private security contractors out of the country by the end of 2010. He later agreed to a new system of licensing contractors when it became clear Afghan police were far from ready to take over the duties of private firms, including the protection of NATO supply convoys.

And while Karzai regularly and publicly condemns NATO for not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties, international military officials respond that their private discussions with Karzai and his ministers often have a very different tone. In private, Afghan officials say international troops should keep up the pace of night raids and air strikes because they work. Those officials have always spoke anonymously so as not to contradict the Afghan government.

Rear Adm. Vic Beck, also speaking for NATO in Kabul, said the alliance was equally concerned perceptions that it was an occupying force. It was working to transfer as much authority to the Afghans as possible, increasing their leadership in night raids.

NATO said at least nine civilians were killed in Saturday’s airstrike in Helmand province. Afghan officials have said 14 were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.

NATO officials apologized for the Nawzad district strike, saying they launched it in response to an insurgent attack on a coalition patrol that killed a U.S. Marine. Five insurgents occupied a compound and continued to attack coalition troops, who then called in the airstrike. The troops later discovered civilians inside the house.

NATO has significantly reduced civilian casualties in recent years, but civilians deaths from insurgent attacks have spiked.

The fighting has also continued to take the lives of international and Afghan forces. In the latest incident Tuesday, a NATO service member was killed in a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan, according to a statement from NATO forces. The military alliance did not provide further details. The U.S. also announced that three of its service members died in a bomb attack in the east on Saturday

Including these deaths, 55 NATO service members have been killed in May, including at least 31 Americans.

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.

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