Petraeus vows to keep civilian deaths to minimum

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top NATO commander in Afghanistan said Thursday he is committed to reducing the loss of innocent lives to an absolute minimum.

The statement marked Gen. David Petraeus’ latest attempt to ease President Hamid Karzai’s anger over civilian casualties. Karzai exploded in rage after a recent air attack that killed at least nine civilians in Helmand province in the south.

After that attack, Karzai ordered the U.S.-led coalition to stop bombing homes because too many civilians were being killed.

It was Karzai’s strongest-ever statement against NATO alliance airstrikes and further complicated a difficult relationship with the Obama administration as it prepares a troop drawdown in the increasingly unpopular war.

In a visit to Khost province in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, Petraeus expressed his “absolute commitment to reducing to the absolute minimum the loss of innocent, civilian lives” during operations targeting insurgents.

NATO has significantly reduced civilian casualties in recent years, but civilians deaths from insurgent attacks have spiked.

“We share President Karzai’s emotion about this,” Petraeus said. “We are here to protect the people, to safeguard them, not to harm them or their property.”

Petraeus and Karzai are expected to discuss the sensitive issue at a meeting this weekend.

Karzai regularly and publicly condemns NATO for not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties. But international military officials say that in private discussions Afghan officials say NATO should keep up the pace of night raids and airstrikes because they are effective. Those officials have always spoken anonymously so as not to contradict the Afghan government.

Karzai’s spokesman said, however, that Karzai intends to stand firm on the issue this time, regardless of the fallout with NATO.

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