KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Five NATO service members were killed in an apparent friendly fire incident in southern Afghanistan, the international coalition said on Tuesday.
A statement from the coalition said all five soldiers died on Monday but did not give further details on the attack or the nationality of the soldiers. Coalition policy is for home countries to identify their military dead. The New York Times reports that the five service members killed were U.S. special operators and that an Afghan solider was also killed.
Most of the forces operating in the area are from the United States.
“The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces. Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation. Our thoughts are with the families of those killed during this difficult time,” the coalition said in an announcement.
If confirmed, it would be one of the most serious cases involving coalition on coalition friendly fire during the nearly 14 year Afghan war. One of the worst came in April 2002 when four Canadian soldiers were killed when an American F-16 dropped a bomb on them near a night firing exercise in the southern Kandahar.
A senior police official in southern Zabul province said the coalition soldiers may have been killed when they called in for close air support.
Provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay said there was a joint operation by Afghan and NATO troops in the area’s Arghandab district early Monday. After that operation was over, the troops came under attack from the Taliban and called in air support.
“There was a joint operation by the joint Afghan and foreign forces in Arghandab district of Zabul province on Monday. After the operation was over on the way back, the joint forces came under the attack of insurgents, then foreign forces called for an air support, Unfortunately five NATO soldiers and one Afghan army officer were killed mistakenly by NATO air strike,” Rooghlawanay said.
There was no way to independently confirm Rooghlawanay comments. The coalition would not comment and NATO headquarters in Brussels also deferred comment.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The insurgents have intensified attacks on Afghan and foreign forces ahead of the country’s presidential election runoff on Saturday. Officials are concerned there could be more violence around the time of the vote, although the first round in April passed relatively peacefully.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said a battle took place on Monday night between foreign troops and Taliban fighters in the Arghandab district. Ahmadi claimed a “huge number” of NATO soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting but the Taliban often exaggerate their claims.
Separately, a NATO statement said a service member had died on Monday as a result of a non-battle injury in eastern Afghanistan.
The deaths bring to 36 the number of NATO soldiers killed so far this year in Afghanistan, with eight service members killed in June.
Casualties have been falling in the U.S.-led military coalition as its forces pull back to allow the Afghan army and police to fight the Taliban insurgency. All combat troops are scheduled to be withdrawn from the country by the end of this year.
Patrick Quinn contributed from Cairo, Egypt.