WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama expressed “deep regret” to his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai for the deaths of nine civilians killed in a coalition air strike, officials said Thursday.
Karzai says those who died were young children out collecting firewood and has warned that international troops in Afghanistan face “huge problems” if the “daily killing of innocent civilians” does not stop.
During their hour-long conversation via video teleconference Wednesday, Obama and Karzai “agreed that such incidents undermine our shared efforts in fighting terrorism,” the White House said.
Karzai’s office said he warned Obama that “increasing civilian casualties” posed a “serious problem.” The Afghan leader has previously argued that such incidents can drain support away from his administration and help the Taliban.
The Afghan president has long insisted that international forces deployed to the country should focus their efforts on militant hideouts across the border in neighboring Pakistan.
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Obama “expressed his deep regret for the tragic accident in Kunar Province in which nine Afghans were killed,” the White House said, noting the president takes such incidents “very seriously.”
General David Petraeus, the US commander of international troops in Afghanistan, has said he was “deeply sorry” for the deaths in northeastern Afghanistan on Tuesday.
The Obama-Karzai talks also covered the planned transitioning of security to Afghan forces, the start of US troop reductions in July, finding a “political outcome” to the war and the near-collapse of Afghanistan’s biggest lender Kabul Bank.
The deaths of ordinary Afghans in foreign military operations against the Taliban have been high on the political agenda in Kabul recently, highlighting tensions between Karzai and the West before a planned limited withdrawal of foreign troops from July.
Afghanistan’s police and army are due to take control of security in the country in 2014, allowing most international troops in Afghanistan, which currently number 140,000, to withdraw.
Obama met earlier with his national security team for his scheduled monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, during which he “underscored the importance of continued international support for peace and stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” according to the White House.
The team, which groups several cabinet secretaries along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, ambassadors to the two countries, Petraeus, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and other military commander, also reviewed “efforts to advance the transition process” in Afghanistan.