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KABUL (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai has condemned a NATO air strike in Afghanistan's lawless east that Afghan officials say may have killed up to eight civilians, the latest evidence of friction between the president and his international backers.
Karzai's office also lashed out on Sunday at the senior U.S. diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, after Dobbins referred to the Afghan conflict as a "civil war".
"President Hamid Karzai termed the attack on women and children against all internationally agreed principles and strongly condemned it," Karzai's office said in a statement.
Civilian deaths have been a long-running source of friction with Afghan leader Karzai's international backers. He has forbidden Afghan troops from calling for foreign air strikes, though that ban is not always adhered to, and NATO advises crews not to fire at or bomb populated areas.
The air strike was targeting insurgents in the border province of Kunar, a mountainous province that shares a long and porous border with lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. The province has long been considered a hub for foreign insurgents, including members of al Qaeda.
"We can confirm that we undertook a precision strike in ... Kunar, and are able to confirm 10 enemy forces killed," said a spokeswoman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, First Lieutenant Ann Marie Annicelli.
NATO had received no reports of civilian casualties, she said.
Kunar police chief Abdul Habib Sayed Khaili and provincial governor Shuja ul Mulk Jalala said at least eight civilians, including three women, four children and a truck driver, had been caught up in an air strike targeting Taliban fighters. They said the truck was hit after the driver gave the Taliban fighters a lift.
The strike occurred at about 5pm on Saturday, Jalala said.
Karzai's criticism of the NATO strike came within hours of him reacting angrily to an interview with Dobbins on Voice of America on Thursday.
In the interview Dobbins was asked if he expected civil war to break out in Afghanistan next year if the Afghan government is unable to reconcile with the Taliban, who have been fighting western-backed forces since being ousted from power in 2001.
"There already is, of course, a civil war in Afghanistan. The question is, will it intensify?" Dobbins responded.
The Afghan state is sensitive to suggestions the war with the Taliban is a civil war, as it suggests foreign troops are in the country to bolster Karzai, not to fight terrorism.
"If (this war) is an insurgency, then it is an internal issue for Afghanistan which would require no U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan," Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi said in a statement.
"Afghanistan is the victim of terrorism and we believe that the war in our country is the fight against terrorism that has roots outside our soil.
"The reason for the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan as mandated by the United Nations is to fight against terrorism only."
The U.S. appeared to retreat from the remarks in a statement posted on the website of its Kabul embassy.
"Recent remarks that referenced Afghanistan currently being in a state of civil war were not intended to reflect all of the sources of conflict in Afghanistan," the statement said.
(Reporting by Sultan Ahmad, Mohammad Anwar and Dylan Welch; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Patrick Graham)