KABUL - A US air strike killed five NATO coalition soldiers in an apparent "friendly fire" accident during clashes with Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, days ahead of the presidential election.
Local police and the Afghan army said that the NATO troops, as well as one Afghan soldier, were killed in the restive province of Zabul when air support was unleashed to try to beat back insurgent fighters.
Friendly fire incidents have been rare in Afghanistan in recent years, though five Afghan soldiers were killed in a NATO air strike in the eastern province of Logar in March.
Afghanistan is braced for Saturday's run-off presidential election - which the Taliban have vowed to target - and Monday night's joint NATO-Afghan operation was tasked with providing increased security ahead of polling day.
"The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces," NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.
"Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation." In line with coalition policy, it did not reveal the nationalities of the victims, but US officials quoted by the Washington Post said the NATO soldiers were American.
"I can confirm that five foreign troops were killed as a result of their own bombardment in Arghandab district," Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewani, police chief of Zabul province, told AFP.
Mohsin Khan, spokesman for the Afghan army's 205 division, which is deployed in Zabul, also said it was a friendly fire error.
"Our forces were jointly engaged in fighting with militants, and foreign forces called in air support and they mistakenly bombed friendly positions," Khan said.
"I can confirm ISAF suffered casualties. We also lost one solider and one was wounded." An ISAF spokesman declined to comment on reports that "friendly fire" was the cause of the deaths.