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US airstrike kills Taliban leader, Afghan children

Kerry eulogizes diplomat slain in suicide attack

Afghan women ran for cover as American soldiers patrolled the Kush Kunar district in Nangarhar on Sunday.

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan women ran for cover as American soldiers patrolled the Kush Kunar district in Nangarhar on Sunday.

KABUL — A US military airstrike in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan killed as many as 18 people, including at least one senior Taliban commander, but also women and children, raising the thorny issue of civilian casualties for the third time in roughly a week.

The attack occurred during a joint mission of Afghan and US special operations forces targeting a high-profile Taliban commander in Kunar Province, Afghan officials said Sunday.

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After several hours of fierce fighting with insurgents in the area Saturday, the US forces called in an airstrike to level the home of the commander, Ali Khan, officials said.

In addition to killing Khan and at least four other Taliban fighters, as many as 10 children were killed in the strike, and at least five women were wounded, said Abdul Zahir Safi, the governor of Shigal district, where the attack occurred. Afghan officials believed they were the relatives and children of the Taliban commander.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Afghan and US officials in Zabul Province, killing three US soldiers and two civilians, including Anne Smedinghoff, 25, an American diplomat in the public affairs division of the State Department. Another employee remains in critical condition.

In an emotional eulogy to the staff and families of the US Consulate in Istanbul, Secretary of State John Kerry talked on Sunday about Smedinghoff, who was originally from Illinois.

Kerry said Smedinghoff had previously served in Venezuela and assisted him during his recent trip to Afghanistan. He deplored the ‘‘harsh contradiction’’ of her death, which occurred as the Americans were bringing books to a school in Kandahar.

‘‘The folks who want to kill people — and that is all they want to do — are scared of knowledge,’’ Kerry said. ‘‘They want to shut the doors, and they don’t want people to make their choices about their future.’’

At a news conference in Istanbul, Kerry described Smedinghoff as ‘‘a selfless, idealistic woman who woke up yesterday morning and set out to bring textbooks to school children, to bring them knowledge.’’

‘‘Anne and those with her,’’ Kerry said, ‘‘were attacked by the Taliban terrorists who woke up that day not with a mission to educate or to help, but with a mission to destroy. A brave American was determined to brighten the light of learning through books, written in the native tongue of the students she had never met, whom she felt it incumbent to help.’’

Saturday was the deadliest day for the United States in the last eight months of the war in Afghanistan. Six Americans died in the convoy bombing and a separate attack in eastern Afghanistan.

The last American diplomat killed on the job was J. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya. Stevens and three other American died in an attack Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya. No one has yet been brought to justice in the attack.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he is optimistic that the Afghan army will hold its own against the insurgency as Western forces leave. He said Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country by May or June.

The deaths of Afghan civilians in NATO strikes have long been a sticking point between President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Harsh criticism by Karzai led to stronger rules on airstrike use by US forces last year, effectively halting air attacks on population centers and homes.

Civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces have dropped dramatically since then, though such strikes bring intense anger among the Afghan population when they happen.

Karzai has basically prohibited his own armed forces from requesting supporting NATO airstrikes after an incident in the same district of Kunar, Shigal, in February 2012 killed 10 civilians.

On Sunday, Karzai’s office issued a statement criticizing the deaths in the Kunar airstrikes, and called for an investigation into civilians deaths there.

The civilian death toll on Saturday added to two incidents in Ghazni Province in the past eight days, when four police officers were killed during a NATO airstrike and two children died in a helicopter attack.

A spokesman for the coalition forces said all of the allegations of civilian casualties remain under investigation. And military officials reiterated that all three recent strikes were called in by international forces rather than Afghan troops.

US military commanders have insisted that airstrikes can be crucial to protecting soldiers’ lives, especially as Afghan forces increasingly take the lead on security operations this year.

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