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NATO air strikes for Afghan security forces must end: Karzai

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security forces will be banned from calling for NATO air strikes in residential areas to help in their operations, President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday, three days after 10 civilians died in such a strike in the country's east.

NATO air strikes and civilian casualties have become a significant stress point in the relationship between Karzai and his international backers. The issue threatens to further destabilize a precarious international withdrawal, to be completed by the end of 2014.

Addressing a conference at Kabul's National Military Academy, Karzai expressed his anger about the strike and said he would issue a decree on Sunday preventing any resort to such measures by his forces.

"Tomorrow, I will issue an decree stating that under no conditions can Afghan forces request foreign air strikes on Afghan homes or Afghan villages during operations," Karzai told more than 1,000 officers, commandos and students.

If issued, such a decree would for the first time bar Afghan security forces from relying on NATO air strikes, and increase pressure on them as they increasingly assume control of security from international forces.

NATO and its partners are racing against the clock to train Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security forces, though questions remain over how they well the Afghans will be able to tackle the insurgency in the face of intensifying violence.

On Wednesday, a NATO air strike -- requested during an operation in eastern Kunar province involving Afghan and American troops targeting Taliban fighters linked to al Qaeda -- struck two houses in a village in the Shultan valley.

The strike killed 10 people, including five children and four women. Four Taliban fighters, who had links to al Qaeda, according to Afghan officials, were also killed.

STRIKES CRITICAL IN DIFFICULT AREAS

Foreign air power is crucial for Afghan forces, particularly in areas like Kunar and Nuristan, which are covered with forests and rough terrain, making ground operations difficult.

Nuristan and Kunar also share a long, porous borders with lawless areas inside Pakistan, known to be home to foreign fighters and al Qaeda members.

Karzai said he had been told that the air strike was requested by the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

"If this is true, it is very regrettable and it is very shameful. How could they ask foreigners to send planes and bomb our own houses?" he said.

According to Kunar officials one of the dead insurgents was identified as a Pakistani citizen and Taliban leader named Rocketi. A second was identified as a Taliban commander called Shahpour.

A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said there would be no comment on any presidential decree until it was actually issued.

In June last year, following the deaths of 18 civilians in a NATO air strike in the country's east, the ISAF commander at the time, General John Allen, issued a directive restricting their use against insurgents "within civilian dwellings".

In a meeting with ISAF Commander General Joseph Dunford following Wednesday's bombing, Karzai stressed Allen's 2012 directive and said such attacks must never recur.

Tensions have risen between Karzai and his foreign backers since his comments in October that the United States and its allies should target supporters of terrorism in Pakistan and stop fighting their war in Afghan villages.

The ISAF says it has reduced civilian casualties in recent years, and that insurgents such as the Taliban are now responsible for 84 per cent of all such deaths and injuries.

(Additional Reporting by Mohammad Anwar and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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