PATROL BASE PUL-I-ALAM, Afghanistan - The commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan apologized Friday for civilian deaths in a coalition airstrike earlier this week - the first confirmation by NATO forces that civilians were killed in the operation.
Marine Gen. John Allen flew to Logar province to personally deliver his regrets to villagers and provincial officials for the deaths of women, children and village elders in Wednesday's pre-dawn raid to capture a Taliban operative.
Afghan officials have said the airstrike called in by NATO troops killed 18 civilians.
"I know that no apology can bring back the lives of the children or the people who perished in this tragedy and this accident, but I want you to know that you have my apology and we will do the right thing by the families," Allen told the group of about two dozen Afghans gathered at a base at the provincial capital of Pul-i-Alam.
Nighttime raids on militants taking cover in villages have been a repeated source of strain between the Afghan government, which says the raids put civilians in the crossfire, and its international allies, who say such operations are key to rooting out insurgent leaders.
A deal signed in April was supposed to resolve the issue by putting the Afghan government in charge of such operations, and the troops involved in Wednesday's raid included Afghan soldiers. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has put the blame for this week's deaths squarely on the international coalition, condemning their actions and calling for them to give a fuller account of how small children were among the dead.
NATO and Afghan officials have said the troops were on an operation to capture a Taliban leader who had holed up in the house in Baraki Barak district's Sajawand village. As they tried to breach the compound, they came under fire and fought back, eventually calling in an airstrike.
Villagers have said there was a wedding at the house the evening before and that it was full of families visiting for the celebration. The morning after the bombing, they piled the bodies of the dead into vans and drove them to the provincial capital to protest the airstrike.
An Afghan doctor who examined the bodies and interviewed two women injured in the airstrike said a group of Taliban fighters decided to spend the night in the house because they thought the wedding would provide them cover. When NATO and Afghan troops started advancing on the house in the middle of the night, they called out for any civilians to come out, but the insurgents didn't allow them to leave, said Wali Wakil.
"The Taliban stopped them from getting out of the house," Wakil said. He said the 18 dead civilians including four women, two old men, three teenage boys and nine young children. Six Taliban fighters were also killed, Wakil said, citing the witnesses. Police had said previously that the district Taliban commander was killed.
Allen said that the troops did not know that there were civilians inside the house when they called in the airstrike.
"They were taken under fire. A hand grenade was thrown. Three of our people were wounded. We called for the people who were shooting to come out, and then the situation became more grave and innocent people were killed," he told The Associated Press after talking with the group gathered in Logar.
"Our weapons killed these people," Allen said. He declined to confirm the exact death toll or provide more details on the operation, citing the ongoing investigation.
In Logar, Allen met with the governor before taking his message to the assembled group of Baraki Barak residents and local officials. He invoked his own family, saying that he kept seeing the faces of his own children as he thought about the children who had been killed.
Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.