A NATO airstrike killed eight civilians in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a district police chief said on Saturday, adding to a 2011 toll that is so far the deadliest for civilians in the decade-long war.
The airstrike happened about 3 p.m. Friday in the Nad Ali district of Helmand after insurgents had attacked troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the area, said Nad Ali district police chief Shidi Khan.
Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan since US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths, and record civilian casualties during the first six months of 2011.
Civilian casualties caused by NATO-led troops hunting Taliban fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers.
The victims on Friday were from one family that had recently fled fighting in neighbouring Uruzghan province, Khan said.
ISAF confirmed an airstrike was carried out after a coalition patrol came under attack.
"Shortly after the engagement coalition forces received reports that civilians were being held captive by the insurgents and may have been present during the airstrike," an ISAF spokesman said.
He said a team of coalition members met with local leaders and ISAF was assessing the incident.
A gradual transition of security control to Afghan forces began last month with when areas were handed over by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Afghan forces are due to take full control across the country by the end of 2014.
The most contentious of the first seven areas to be handed over was Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Helmand province has been the site of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. Far more foreign troops have died there than in any other province and there are still several Helmand districts dominated by the Taliban.
In the past month insurgents have carried out a string of destabilising assassinations of high-profile southern leaders, including President Hamid Karzai's younger brother, and several large attacks killing police and civilians.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that the first six months of 2011 had been the deadliest period for civilians since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It said 1,462 civilians were killed in conflict-related incidents, up 15% on the first half of 2010. It blamed insurgents for 80 percent of those deaths.