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Karzai: End house strikes

After 14 civilians die, the Afghan leader demanded an end to NATO aerial attacks.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, angered by an air strike that Afghan officials said killed 14 civilians over the weekend, demanded Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition halt aerial strikes on Afghan houses and threatened to take unspecified actions if the coalition did not comply.

It was Karzai's strongest statement yet on air strikes, which have long bedeviled the relationship between the Afghan government and the coalition, and came three days after Karzai ordered his defense minister to put an end to coalition night raids, another tactic that Karzai says too often results in civilian casualties.

"I have warned NATO forces repeatedly that aerial attacks on the houses of Afghans are not allowed," Karzai said. "This is their last attack."

Karzai did not say how the Afghan government would prevent coalition air strikes. But he warned that if they continued, it would threaten the U.S.-Afghan alliance in the war against the Taliban.

"If NATO acts like an occupier, then Afghans know how to deal with that," he said, a reference to the occupation of Afghanistan by the British and Soviet armies in the 20th century. Both armies were forced to withdraw after years of Afghan guerrilla attacks.

Both the U.S. commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and his predecessor, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued orders limiting when air strikes could be called, in hopes of preventing civilian casualties. But Karzai has continued to complain that those rules haven't stopped civilian casualties from errant or mistaken bombings.

The NATO coalition defended its actions, saying statistics showed that the Taliban was responsible for 86 percent of civilian casualties. A U.N. report earlier this year supported that conclusion.

The coalition also noted the Taliban "had repeatedly fired on medical evacuation aircraft, carried out suicide attacks in bazaars full of Afghan women and children and this week attempted to use an Afghan ambulance as a suicide vehicle bomb."

NATO officials acknowledged, however, that the fact that its forces are made up of foreign troops makes the deaths it causes more sensitive politically than deaths caused by the Taliban.

"Gen. Petraeus has repeatedly noted that every liberation force has to be very conscious that it can, over time, become seen as an occupation force," said the statement, which was attributed to Rear Adm. Victor Beck, director of public affairs. "We are in agreement with President Karzai on the importance of constantly examining our actions in light of that reality, and we are doing just that."

Karzai's statement was in response to an air strike Saturday that killed 14 people in Helmand province. U.S. Marines called in the strike after they came under fire from Taliban insurgents in the Now Zad district, according to the Helmand governor's office.

The strike leveled two houses, killing 12 children and two women, the governor's spokesman said. On Tuesday, Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the regional commander for Helmand, apologized for the deaths.

Toolan said that an investigation was continuing and that the families of the dead would be compensated "in accordance with Afghan culture." He did not address whether any of the U.S. troops involved in the raid would face discipline if they were found to have violated coalition guidelines.

"I ask that the Afghan people continue to trust and assist their security forces so that together we can stop the senseless killing brought upon us by an enemy who wants to exploit the Afghan people through fear and violence," the statement said.

Karzai said he intended to meet with top NATO leaders soon, possibly Sunday, to spell out what actions the government intended to take if the air strikes do not end. Not heeding his warnings is a threat to the country's sovereignty, Karzai said, and Afghanistan must be treated as an ally, not an occupied country.