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Fresh Air Strike Kills Seven Afghan Civilians, Officials Say

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Foreign forces have killed seven civilians in an air strike in northwest Afghanistan, officials said, a day after the Afghan president said warplanes had killed 40 civilians in the south.

President Hamid Karzai said the issue of civilian casualties was the biggest source of tension with his main backers, the United States, and called on President-elect Barack Obama to make it his top priority to stop the killings of innocents.

The air strike was called in after a Taliban attack in the Ghormach district of Badghis Province in the northwest late on November 5, provincial officials said.

District chief Abdullah said seven civilians and 15 insurgents were killed in the raid.

"I myself have been to the area and seen the bodies of seven civilians. The house of a member of the provincial council was also bombed, two of his sons and a grandson were also killed," said Abdullah, who only uses one name.

Troops from the U.S.-led coalition, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and Afghan security forces responded to an insurgent ambush while on a route clearance operation, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"The coalition, ISAF, and Afghan authorities are investigating reports of noncombatant casualties in the Ghormach district last night," Colonel Greg Julian said in the statement.

"We do not know the facts at this time but we will investigate this situation to get to the truth. We take our responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan very seriously and take extensive measures to avoid circumstances where noncombatant civilians are placed at risk," he said.

It was not possible to verify the claims of civilian deaths independently due to the area's remoteness and poor security.

Pashtun Pocket

There has been a steady rise in violence in Ghormach, an ethnic Pashtun pocket in the mainly Tajik and Uzbek north, in the last two years, holding up work on completion of a road linking the west to the capital, Kabul, and hampering aid deliveries.

Hundreds of Afghans have been killed in U.S. air strikes this year, leading to seething resentment against the presence of foreign troops and a rift between Karzai and his Western backers.

Some 4,000 people, more than a third of them civilians, have been killed this year in fighting with the Taliban, who have expanded the scope and scale of their insurgency to try to oust Karzai's Western-backed government and eject foreign forces.

NATO and U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan say they do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties, but mistakes do happen. Hundreds of civilians are killed in Taliban attacks, especially by suicide and roadside bombs.

In a latest suicide attack near a government office, five people, three of them civilians, were wounded on November 6 in Maidan Wardak province, an official said.