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7 Afghan civilians die in military attack

US-led forces had targeted militants in a house, cave

KABUL, Afghanistan -- US-led coalition forces using warplanes and artillery clashed with a small band of militants holed up in a house and a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in fighting that killed seven Afghan civilians and wounded three, the military said yesterday.

The US military launched an investigation into the deaths, inflicted during an operation involving 2,500 Afghan and coalition forces to counter an upsurge in attacks by Taliban-led militants.

The clash happened late Saturday in the Korangal Valley in the eastern Kunar province bordering Pakistan after American troops retaliated against an attack launched by eight to 10 militants firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, US military spokesman Major Matt Hackathorn said.

US soldiers on the ground called in warplanes and artillery to target militants sheltering in a house and nearby cave. Several militants were killed while the rest sought coverage in a compound housing civilians.

''Our surveillance indicated that there was a house with a cave nearby and that the insurgents were going back and forth between both, so we suppressed the area with a combined arms assault of close air support, artillery, and direct fire," Hackathorn said.

''But once we realized there were civilians in the area, we ceased fire," he said.

After the firefight ended, village elders told coalition forces that seven people had been killed and three wounded, Hackathorn said.

''Whether our direct fire was responsible [for the casualties] or close-air support or if the victims were caught in the crossfire we just don't know right now," he said. ''We are profoundly sorry about the loss of life."

US Major General Benjamin C. Freakley, the coalition's operational commander, called for an investigation, a military statement said.

The wounded civilians were treated at a coalition base in Asadabad.

US and Afghan forces last week launched a major offensive to flush out Taliban-led militants in the region.

Police forces tried to go to the area during the battle but were prevented from entering by coalition and Afghan soldiers who had sealed off the scene, deputy police chief Mohammed Hassan said. He said seven locals died in the battle, but that four residents -- two women and two children -- were wounded.

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