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Karzai rejects air strike apology

Afghanistan's president has rejected a US apology for the mistaken killing of nine Afghan boys in a Nato air attack, saying civilian casualties were no longer acceptable.

According to a statement from his office, Hamid Karzai told General David Petraeus, the top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, that expressing regret was not sufficient over last week's killing of the boys aged 12 and under, by coalition helicopters.

Nato has also apologised for the mistaken killings. Civilian casualties from coalition operations are a major source of strain in the already difficult relationship between Mr Karzai's government and the US and generate widespread outrage among the population.

"President Karzai said that only regret is not sufficient and also mentioned that civilian casualties during military operations by coalition forces is the main reason for tension in relations between Afghanistan and United States," the statement said. "It is not acceptable for the Afghan people anymore. Regrets and condemnations of the incident cannot heal the wounds of the people."

The killing of the nine boys took place on March 1 in the Pech valley area of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.

Lt Gen David Rodriguez, who directs day-to-day operations of coalition forces across Afghanistan, later issued a video statement of apology.

In the video, he said troops at a base in the valley were responding to a rocket attack and dispatched attack helicopters to the location they were told the rockets came from. He said the helicopters thought they were engaging insurgents, but it later turned out they were boys from a nearby village who were cutting firewood.

On Sunday, Mr Karzai appealed to Gen Petraeus to do more to prevent such incidents, during a meeting of the National Security Council, a body that includes Cabinet members and senior political and military officials.

Last week, Mr Karzai warned President Barack Obama in a video conference call that US-led forces must do a better job addressing civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, US defence secretary Robert Gates has begun a two-day visit with US troops, allied commanders and Afghan leaders to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves towards crucial decisions on reducing troop levels. Mr Gates planned to travel to eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan, the areas most fiercely contested by the Taliban uprising.

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