KABUL – The head of a presidential delegation investigating the deaths of 10 people in eastern Afghanistan concluded Wednesday that civilians — including schoolchildren — were killed in an attack involving foreign troops, disputing NATO reports that the dead were insurgents.
Asadullah Wafa, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, told The Associated Press by telephone that eight schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 14 were among the dead discovered in a village house in the Narang district of Kunar province.
A NATO official has said initial reports from troops involved in the fighting on Sunday indicated that those killed were insurgents — all young males.
Civilian deaths are one of the most sensitive issues for foreign troops in Afghanistan, especially now when some additional 37,000 U.S. and NATO troops are being deployed to the war-ravaged country. Although far more civilians are killed by the Taliban, those blamed on international forces spark widespread resentment and undermine the fight against militants.
Several hundred Afghans protested the deaths Wednesday in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and in the capital of Kabul. In Jalalabad, they burned President Barack Obama's effigy and an American flag, chanting "death" to Obama and Karzai.
In Kabul, protesters chanted, "Unity, unity, death to the enemy of Islam!" and a protester with a bullhorn called on Obama to "take your soldiers out of Afghanistan."
Wafa said he was convinced all those killed in the Kunar incident were innocent civilians.
"I have talked to the principal of the school in the village and he gave us details about the killed children," Wafa said. "The schoolchildren cannot be al-Qaida. I confirm they are innocent people killed by mistake. I talked to Karzai about the findings."
The bodies had already been buried by the time Wafa's team arrived. A joint Afghan-NATO probe will continue to investigate what happened.
Wafa said the villagers demanded from the 10-member delegation of government officials and lawmakers that informants "who gave the wrong target to the Americans must be found and punished by a court."
Karzai said in a statement Wednesday that he talked to the relatives of the Kunar victims to express his condolences and pledge to bring to justice those responsible for the attack.
Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said at a news conference Wednesday the allegations were being investigated together with Afghan authorities.
He said the force takes all such allegations seriously and goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
"In fact, you can see that our enemy, the insurgents, have very little regard for the Afghan people," he said. "We have noticed a very dramatic increase in civilian casualties caused by roadside bombs, by attacks that insurgents have on the Afghan people."
The latest figures released by the United Nations show that 2,021 civilians died during clashes in the first 10 months of this year, up from 1,838 for the same period last year. Taliban insurgents were blamed for 68 percent of the deaths this year — three times more than NATO forces, according to the U.N.