Five Afghan soldiers killed by American friendly fire

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The Independent Online

Five Afghan soldiers died in a botched Nato airstrike after they were mistaken for insurgents yesterday, in another set-back to the international coalition as it struggles to build the country's own security forces as a prelude to a military withdrawal.

The Taliban propaganda machine sprang into action, claiming credit for the withdrawal of 1,000 British troops from Sangin in Helmand, the scene of the fiercest fighting the British Army has seen since the Second World War.

The friendly fire incident took place before dawn yesterday, apparently mistaking an army outpost in the east of the country for an insurgent group. "Nato aircraft bombed and martyred five of our soldiers," a defence ministry spokesman said. "We condemn this incident and regret that this is not the first time such an incident has occurred. We hope it is the last time."

The spokesman said that the Afghan soldiers had been preparing for an ambush on insurgents in Ghazni province at about 4am when a Nato helicopter fired rockets on the group without warning.

Nato confirmed the incident but would not specify which country's aircraft had fired. A spokesman said an investigation had been launched and suggested poor co-ordination may have been to blame. "We were obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area," he said. US General David Petraeus, who has just taken up his post as commander of international forces, issued condolences to the families of the dead Afghan soldiers. The coalition also confirmed that a homemade bomb had killed three US servicemen, taking its death toll for this month to 17.

Such incidents, although rare, provoke resentment towards Nato forces in the Afghan military. The coalition's plans to extricate itself from the war in Afghanistan depend on building the national army and police force to a standard and size where they can handle security operations against the insurgents themselves.

The deaths of the Afghan soldiers may also stoke fears of a rise in friendly fire incidents and civilian casualties as Nato forces reach an unprecedented 140,000. General Petraeus has also refused to rule out changes to rules of engagement introduced by his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal. These were credited with mitigating civilian deaths at the expense of increasing the dangers faced by troops and preventing them pursuing militants as aggressively as they wanted.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have been making the most of the British withdrawal from Sangin, claiming there would be no let-up in violence in the remote valley in northern Helmand. Sangin has become almost synonymous with the improvised explosive devices that have been the Taliban's most effective weapon. US Marines replacing the British later this year would, they promised, meet "the same fate".

"This is the start of the British forces' defeat in Afghanistan," said Mullah Mohammad Omar. "We defeated them in Sangin. They'll be defeated in the rest of the country soon."