KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military expressed regret yesterday over the deaths of seven Afghan children in an airstrike a day earlier but blamed Islamic insurgents for preventing the youngsters from leaving the compound that was hit.
American officials said U.S.-led coalition forces were unaware of the presence of noncombatants inside the compound in Paktika province, which also contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic seminary.
Seven boys under the age of 16, including at least one as young as 10, were killed in Sunday's airstrike, according to Afghan officials. Paktika Gov. Akhram Akhpelwak told the Associated Press that, in a departure from usual practice, local Afghan officials were not given advance notice of Western troops' plans to hit the compound.
Accidental civilian deaths at the hands of coalition troops have become a highly emotional issue in Afghanistan. The country's pro-Western president, Hamid Karzai, has appealed repeatedly for greater caution in military operations in civilian areas, but public anger at his government is growing as well.
The compound, in the Zargun Shah district of Paktika province, in Afghanistan's southeast, was believed to have been occupied by militants linked to al-Qaida, the military said in a statement. It said several militants were killed in addition to the young boys.
Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the coalition, said surviving children told authorities they were forcibly kept inside the compound by insurgents.
"The people in the area understand that the incident was the result of hoodlums' activity in the area," he said.
A full day of surveillance before the airstrike yielded no sign of the youngsters' presence, Belcher said.
U.S. military officials traveled to the province to meet with local authorities and express regret over the deaths. Afghan human rights officials, who have been strongly critical of several other military operations this year that resulted in multiple civilian deaths, said they were investigating the incident.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, Western forces reported prolonged fighting with insurgents in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, for months the site of the heaviest fighting between Western troops and insurgents. A Dutch soldier was killed, along with dozens of Taliban fighters, the coalition said.
The fighting occurred in remote areas, and the casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. Initial estimates of battlefield fatalities are often imprecise.
In Kabul, police reported the detention of an unidentified suspect in connection with the worst attack in months in the capital - a large suicide bomb on Sunday that incinerated a bus carrying police trainees. Nearly three dozen people were killed in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
The blast heightened fears that militants are gaining the ability to carry out large-scale attacks even in heavily fortified areas of the capital. Past suicide attacks in Kabul have claimed far fewer casualties.
Suicide bombings are increasingly becoming a favored tactic by the insurgents, who in general are reluctant to engage in head-to-head battle against vastly better-armed troops.
M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.