KABUL, Afghanistan - NATO warplanes hunting Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan mistakenly bombed an Afghan road construction crew sleeping in tents, killing 14 workers, Afghan officials said yesterday.
If confirmed that NATO hit the wrong target, the incident in mountainous Nuristan province late Monday would be the first major blunder by foreign troops in months. It follows sharp criticism earlier this year of mass civilian casualties caused in operations by US and NATO-led troops that have undermined their reputation among Afghan civilians and hurt the government of Western-backed President Hamid Karzai.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said its warplanes conducted air strikes against Taliban fighters in the area Monday night and that a militant leader was targeted.
"ISAF was engaged in Nurgaram and Du Ab [districts], and in those places we used air strikes" against Taliban fighters, spokesman Brigadier General Carlos Branco told a news conference. "The situation is not clear at all at this stage. We are carrying out the investigation and trying to get a clear picture."
Major Charles Anthony, another spokesman for the NATO force, said two bombs were dropped and there was a "strong indication that we got a Taliban leader during the course of the operation."
But Afghan officials said bombs hit two tents housing Afghan engineers and laborers contracted by the US military to build a road, killing 14 workers. They blamed faulty intelligence for the mistake.
Nuristan Governor Tamim Nuristani said the attacks followed reports that "the enemy" was in the area, but they instead hit the road construction workers as they were sleeping.
"All of our poor workers have been killed," said Sayed Noorullah Jalili, director of Amerifa, a Kabul-based road construction company. "I don't think the Americans were targeting our people. I'm sure it's the enemy of the Afghans who gave the Americans this wrong information."
Amerifa received the contract to build 135 miles of road for the US military last year, Jalili said.
The company has requested that the US military - which operates in this remote and rugged region - investigate how it got the information that led to the strike, Jalili said.
The slain workers were from four nearby provinces and all but three of the bodies have been returned to their homes, Jalili said.
NATO and other foreign troops in Afghanistan came under scathing criticism earlier this year for carrying out airstrikes based on poor intelligence that caused numerous civilian casualties. As the war has escalated over the past two years, US and NATO commanders have been forced to rely increasingly on airstrikes to engage the Taliban in remote locations.