The top US commander in Afghanistan apologised to President Hamid Karzai for a drone strike that killed a child and NATO promised an investigation as rising tensions threatened efforts to persuade the Afghan leader to sign a long-delayed security agreement.
Marine General Joseph Dunford called Karzai late Thursday to express "deep regrets for the incident and any civilian casualties," the commander's spokesman said.
Karzai condemned the attack, which also wounded two women earlier Thursday, and said all airstrikes and foreign raids on Afghan homes must stop if the United States expects him to sign the pact that would allow thousands of Americans to stay in the country beyond a 2014 withdrawal deadline.
"This attack shows that American forces do not respect the safety of the Afghan people in their homes," Karzai said in a Dari-language statement on his website.
The two governments have agreed on a draft bilateral security agreement and it was approved by the consultative Afghan council the Loya Jirga. But Karzai shocked the assembly and the Americans when he announced he would not sign the deal but would instead leave that up to his successor following April 5 elections. The 2,500-member Loya Jirga had also demanded it be signed by the end of next month.
The Obama administration has been trying to persuade Karzai to change his mind and sign the deal by the end of the year in order to allow enough time to make preparations for a continuing presence after the NATO and UN mandates for foreign troops in the country expires at the end of next year.
In the phone call, Dunford talked to Karzai directly and "expressed deep regrets for the incident and any civilian casualties assured Karzai that an investigation would be conducted into Thursday's airstrike, which the Afghan president said was carried out by a drone in southern Helmand province.
"He talked to President Karzai directly, expressed deep regrets for the incident and any civilian casualties, and promised to convene an immediate joint investigation to determine all the facts of what happened," Dunford's spokesman Col. David Lapan said in an email.
The coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, said the airstrike had killed an insurgent on a motorbike in Helmand and also promised to investigate Karzai's claims that it also killed a child and injured two women.