NATO Helicopter Kills 5 Afghan Police Officers

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A NATO helicopter called in to support Afghan police at a highway checkpoint opened fire and mistakenly killed five Afghan officers, authorities said Thursday, as international troops prepare to withdraw from the country.

The killings happened Wednesday night in eastern Nangarhar province's Bati Kot district, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the capital, Kabul. Police officers manning a checkpoint on a highway near the border with Pakistan came under fire and called in for air support from NATO troops, said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

It's unclear what happened next, but the NATO helicopter opened fire on the Afghan troops, killing five soldiers, said Capt. Malloy Ebony, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force.

Ebony said NATO troops were responding to a call from helped from combined Afghan and NATO coalition troops. Lt. Col. Will Griffin, another ISAF spokesman, said that the operation in the area involved a combined force of international and Afghan troops, but gave no further details. That contradicted information initially provided by Afghan authorities about the incident. The different accounts could not be immediately reconciled Thursday.

"An investigation is being conducted at this time to determine this specific circumstances that lead to this," Ebony said.

Insurgents have stepped up the tempo of their attacks in areas where foreign troops have withdrawn, or are in the process of drawing down after handing over the lead for security to Afghan security forces in mid-June. The majority of foreign forces are to leave this year and completely pull out at the end of 2014.

A United Nations report this week credited ISAF with reducing the number of casualties caused by airstrikes. However, NATO forces have killed Afghan troops by mistake in the past.

The death of civilians in military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among a major source of acrimony between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and foreign forces. In February, Karzai banned government forces from requesting foreign air support during operations in residential areas amid anger over an airstrike that killed at least 10 civilians in northeastern Kunar province.

Meanwhile, attacks continued elsewhere in Afghanistan. In southern Uruzgan province, spokesman Farid Ayel said the Taliban ambushed local education official Hadi Khan, killing him, his two sons and a bodyguard on Wednesday afternoon. In northwestern Faryab province, Gov. Ahmadullha Batash said a roadside mine exploded on Thursday, killing two policemen and a prosecutor, and wounding seven people in Bilchiragh district.

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