URUZGAN PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN -- The Afghan government says 27 civilians were killed in the central province of Dai Kundi on February 21 when a NATO air strike mistakenly targeted a convoy they were traveling in.
The government, lowering an earlier death toll of 33, called the air strike "unjustifiable."
Zmarai Bashari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that civilians in three minibuses were mistaken for Taliban reinforcements because their convoy was traveling straight toward a nearby battle between NATO and Taliban fighters.
"The information we received from ISAF suggests that a military operation was under way by the international forces nearby -- not exactly in the place where the [air strike] occurred, but in an area close by," Bashari said.
"They thought the convoy was heading to the operation site, so they attacked the convoy. However, it is still early to give more details about the incident."
Bashari said the Afghan Interior Ministry on February 21 appointed a delegation to travel to the region to investigate what happened. NATO officials also are investigating. More than a dozen survivors who were injured by the air strike are expected to be interviewed.
NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal has expressed regret for the incident to Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- which was in Dai Kundi's southern district of Gujran near the border with Uruzgan Province.
In a statement, McChrystal said NATO is "extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives." He said NATO would redouble its efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
McChrystal also said he has made it clear to NATO troops that they are in Afghanistan to protect the Afghan people, and that the trust and confidence of Afghans is undermined by inadvertent civilian deaths and injuries.
In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told reporters that McChrystal had apologized to President Hamid Karzai as soon as the incident happened.
Mullen said McChrystal also plans to make a public statement to the Afghan people, and offered his own apologies.
"Yesterday's terrible loss of innocent civilians reminds us of just how fragile and how tragic any move we make can ultimately be," he said. "That incident is being investigated so I can't speak to many details."
"But I do offer my heartfelt condolences not only to the loved ones of those killed in this incident, but to the Afghan people themselves, and to the family and friends of all those killed or wounded thus far in this operation, Afghan and coalition alike," Mullen added.
The air strike comes at a sensitive time for NATO forces, which together with Afghan troops are engaged in an offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.
Sunday's strike was the second time in two weeks that U.S. and coalition forces have mistakenly killed civilians. Last week U.S. Marine unit accidentally killed 12 people.
Mullen said despite a "great focus" on avoiding civilian casualties, the intense fighting conditions have made accidents hard to avoid.
"I think it's just, it's a very difficult environment. It's tough terrain, it's tough to know, and these are split second decisions that commanders in combat on the ground have to make," he said. "And it is the focus of the military leadership, right down to the unit level and it's indicative, I think, of how difficult it is.
On February 20, Karzai admonished NATO troops for not doing enough to protect civilian lives caught up in that area of operations -- despite his recognition of reports from Afghan troops and international media that Taliban fighters have been using civilians as human shields in the town of Marjah.
Karzai was referring to the killing earlier this month of 12 civilians at a house in Marjah when NATO aircraft fired air-to-ground rockets at a Taliban sniper in the same building.
"The movement of Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and other groups who are still involved in fighting must know that they share a large responsibility for this," Karzai told the parliament.
Still, Karzai said, Afghan and NATO forces need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties -- even when militants hold civilians as hostages in the midst of combat.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Dawakhan Meenapal contributed to this report from Uruzgan Province