KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. air strikes in western Afghanistan missed their target - a militant commander - and instead killed 12 other militants and 10 civilians, provincial officials said yesterday.

The U.S. military originally said the strike killed Mullah Mustafa. But in a statement issued yesterday, the military said "credible reports surfaced that Mustafa survived the attack" in Ghor province.

The United States said it was investigating reports that civilians were killed.

Rising violence in Afghanistan has been accompanied by a spike in civilian casualties, which has turned many against the international effort even though far more casualties are caused by insurgent attacks than military operations.

The Afghan government has called on coalition forces to put in more safeguards to prevent civilian deaths during strikes.

In one of the most high-profile cases of civilian deaths, Afghan officials have accused coalition forces of killing 140 villagers with air strikes during a May 4-5 assault in Farah province. U.S. commanders have said they believe no more than 30 civilians were killed, along with 60 to 65 Taliban insurgents.

The findings of a U.S. inquiry into those air strikes are to be released as early as today, but the Pentagon earlier this week said U.S. troops did not follow proper tactics and procedures.

Ghor Deputy Gov. Karimuddin Rezazada told the Associated Press that 10 civilians, including five children, and 12 militants were killed in Tuesday's air strikes in Shahrak district. He cited reports from district officials and area security forces.

Rezazada said Mullah Mustafa was not killed in the attack. He did not provide further details but said he had dependable reports that Mustafa was alive.

The U.S. statement said "unsubstantiated reports of civilian casualties emerged" yesterday. The military said that its review of the operation supported the idea that all those killed were militants, but said it was still examining reports.

The United States previously said 16 of Mustafa's men were killed in the strike.

"Mustafa is an enemy of Afghanistan, and we're working with Afghan officials to pursue him until he is captured or confirmed killed," Lt. Cmdr Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said in the statement. "In addition, we are working closely with Afghan partners to investigate unconfirmed reports of civilians among Mustafa's party."

The United States said its forces had observed Mustafa moving by vehicle from his compound Tuesday and launched the air attack when he stopped in a remote, unpopulated area with a number of associates.

It said Mustafa commands 100 fighters and "reportedly had connections to" elements in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force.

The force is known usually to train Shiite militants, according to the U.S. military. Taliban extremists are Sunni and have in the past been opposed to Iran's government.

CIA Director Says Chances Of Finding bin Laden Improve

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was believed to still be in Pakistan and that the chances of capturing or killing him had improved as that nation's military continued its drive against Taliban extremists.

"One of our hopes is that, as the Pakistanis move in militarily, combined with our operations, we may be able to have a better chance to get at him," Panetta told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Taliban extremists have been pushed from the northwestern Swat Valley and have regrouped in the craggy tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, where al-Qaeda leaders may be holed up.

Finding bin Laden is still "one of our major priorities,"

Panetta said, and the "last information we had," bin Laden was in Pakistan. Panetta made his comments after speaking at a luncheon of the National Italian American Foundation.

- Bloomberg News

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