An overnight NATO-led air strike on a remote Afghan village killed six civilians, including children, Afghan officials said yesterday, but Western forces said they had targeted armed militants.

Civilian deaths caused by foreign troops hunting the Taliban have become a major cause of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers, and sapped support for the presence of Western forces in the country. In some cases, US and Western troops have initially disputed reports of civilian casualties, only to later acknowledge them and apologise.

The attack hit a remote district of rugged, heavily forested Kunar province, which borders Pakistan and provides ideal cover for insurgents fighting the US-backed government in Kabul. "Four to six insurgents with weapons were identified when we engaged them," a spokesman from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said. "We are sending an area commander to talk to the villagers regarding claims of civilian casualties," he said.

District police chief Mirza Mohammad said six people had been killed, all civilians, including a 3 year-old girl, a 10 year-old boy and a 40-year-old woman. Another 16 people, including nine children, were wounded, the youngest a year-old infant. Three houses were destroyed, he said. "We were having dinner when the attack happened," village resident Ezatuallah, who uses one name, told Reuters by telephone from Wata Pur district, adding all the dead were civilians.

"I am aware of the bombardment and the martyrdom and wounding of civilians," Kunar's provincial governor Fazlullah Wahidi said.

Source: Reuters