Two women and two children were killed in an air strike called in by British forces in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said. It is understood that the incident in Helmand Province took place after British troops had called in air support to help extricate them from a Taliban ambush at an undisclosed location in the southern part of the war-ravaged province.
The four bodies were found alongside one injured civilian as soldiers went to inspect the area.
The MoD said in a statement yesterday: "We can confirm UK forces were involved in an operation in the south of Helmand Province. We deeply regret that this incident happened and do everything we can to mitigate this from happening. This incident is currently under investigation and it would be inappropriate for us to comment."
The tragedy highlights the responsibility on the shoulders of British forward air controllers – the role filled by Prince Harry until he was forced to return from his posting in Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
The job involves providing air support for ground troops who come into contact with Taliban as well as carrying out aerial surveillance behind enemy lines.
The Prince spent several weeks working in the southern part of Helmand before moving to Musa Qaleh further north.
Details of the incident were revealed by a Nato spokesman, Brig-Gen Carlos Branco at a news conference in Afghanistan yesterday. But while he spoke of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf ) involvement, the MoD confirmed that UK troops were present. It is not known if the aircraft was British. Brig-Gen Branco said: "During the ensuing fight, two women and two children, part of a group of civilians who were in the vicinity of the action, were killed. We deeply regret the loss of innocent life and injuries by civilians, and we are saddened that casualties were caused as a result of a deliberate attack against Isaf forces instigated by insurgents."
He added: "On the tragic issue of civilian casualties, you will note that Isaf will inform you of such unfortunate events, events which are thoroughly investigated. This is not the case for the insurgents, whose propaganda attempts to seize every opportunity to accuse Nato troops of killing civilians, no matter what the circumstances, to create the perception that ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) or Isaf are responsible for all civilian casualties."
The MoD spokeswoman said yesterday that the British ground troops had been caught up in an intense battle after being ambushed by Taliban fighters.
Air support was called in and directed on to the area where the Taliban appeared to have been operating but the civilians were unintentionally killed.
The injured civilian has been taken to the British field hospital at Camp Bastion for medical treatment.