US military defends airstrike that killed civilians

The U.S. military on Wednesday defended an airstrike on a southern Afghan village that killed at least 16 civilians, saying its troops were being fired on and they had the right to defend themselves.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins also apologized to the victims' families, saying "we never wanted this to happen." He said the coalition has offered assistance to the families, but didn't disclose details.

Collins said the troops did not know there were civilians in the homes overnight Sunday when they called in U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs to strafe the buildings with large-caliber bullets.

The military has confirmed the deaths of 20 militants in the assault on the village of Azizi and believes up to 60 more may also have died. Collins said some unidentified local Taliban leaders may be among the dead.

The airstrike was one of the deadliest since the American-led invasion in 2001, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an inquiry, the second time in five weeks the leader has complained about civilian deaths from airstrikes.

Collins said the military estimate of the number of civilian deaths was the same as that of Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar, who has said at least 16 died.

"The ultimate cause of why civilians were injured and killed is because the Taliban knowingly, willfully chose to occupy homes of these people. We do everything we can to prevent killing civilians," he told reporters in Kabul, reports the AP.

I.L.