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KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO warplanes hunting Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan mistakenly bombed an Afghan road construction crew sleeping in tents, killing 14 workers, Afghan officials said Wednesday.
If confirmed that NATO hit the wrong target, the incident in mountainous Nuristan province late Monday would be the first major blunder in months. U.S.- and NATO-led forces drew sharp criticism earlier this year for causing civilian casualties that have undermined their reputation among Afghan civilians and hurt Western-backed President Hamid Karzai's government.
A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force said that its warplanes conducted airstrikes on Taliban fighters in the area Monday night and that a militant leader was targeted.
"ISAF was engaged in Nurgaram and Du Ab (districts), and in those places we used airstrikes" on Taliban fighters, Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco said at a news conference. "The situation is not clear at all at this stage. We are carrying out the investigation and trying to get a clear picture."
Maj. Charles Anthony, another spokesman for the NATO force, said two bombs were dropped and there was a "strong indication that we got a Taliban leader during the course of the operation."
In Washington, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said officials believed the strike might have killed the Taliban's commander for western Nuristan, Abdulla Jan.
Asked about possible civilian casualties, Morrell said that "the nearest known construction site to where the target area is, is located more than a kilometer (a half mile) away."
"We did not, nor do we ever, target civilians," said Morrell. "We have no indication at this time that there were anyone other than legitimate targets killed in this operation."
But Afghan officials said bombs hit two tents housing Afghan engineers and laborers contracted by the U.S. military to build a road, killing 14 workers. They blamed faulty intelligence for the mistake.
Nuristan Gov. Tamim Nuristani said the attacks followed reports that "the enemy" was in the area, but they instead hit the road construction workers as they were sleeping.
"All of our poor workers have been killed," said Sayed Noorullah Jalili, director of Amerifa, a Kabul-based road construction company. "I don't think the Americans were targeting our people. I'm sure it's the enemy of the Afghans who gave the Americans this wrong information."
Amerifa received the contract to build 135 miles of road for the U.S. military last year, Jalili said.
The company has requested that the U.S. military, which operates in this remote and rugged region, investigate how it got the information that led to the strike, Jalili said.
The slain workers were from four nearby provinces and all but three of the bodies had been returned to their homes, Jalili said.
NATO and other foreign troops in Afghanistan came under scathing criticism earlier this year for carrying out airstrikes based on poor intelligence that caused numerous civilian casualties. As the war has escalated over the past two years, U.S. and NATO commanders have been forced to rely increasingly on airstrikes to engage the Taliban in remote locations.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week in Kabul that the alliance has "worked hard" to change its procedures to avoid civilian deaths, following U.N. criticism that the foreign troops were behind an alarming number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's president has pleaded repeatedly with NATO and coalition troops to cooperate closely with their Afghan counterparts to prevent civilian deaths, and the number of such incidents has dropped significantly in the past few months.
This has been the deadliest year yet since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, with more than 6,100 people killed — including over 800 civilians — in militant attacks and military operations, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Afghan and Western officials.