( AP ) - Afghan police mistakenly thought U.S. troops on a nighttime mission were Taliban fighters and opened fire on them, prompting U.S. forces to return fire and call in attack aircraft, killing seven Afghan police, officials said Tuesday. U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops, meanwhile, killed more than 24 suspected Taliban fighters during an eight-hour battle in southern Afghanistan on Monday, the coalition said.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman labeled the shooting at a remote police checkpoint in the eastern province of Nangarhar "a tragic incident" caused by a lack of communication.
"The police forces were not aware of the coalition's operation," said spokesman Karim Rahimi. "The police checkpoint in the area thought that they were the enemy, so police opened fire on the coalition, and then the coalition thought that the enemies were firing on them, so they returned fire back."
The commander at the post, Esanullah, who goes by one name, said U.S. gunfire and helicopter rockets killed seven policemen and wounded four.
Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said a combined coalition-Afghan force was ambushed by small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades from two sides while on the way to conduct an operation against a suspected Taliban safe house.
"Afghan and coalition forces took incoming fire and they responded to it," Belcher said. The forces called in air support, he said.
A policeman at the remote checkpoint said police called out for the U.S. forces to cease their attack.
"I thought they were Taliban, and we shouted at them to stop, but they came closer and they opened fire," said Khan Mohammad, one of the policemen at the post. "I'm very angry. We are here to protect the Afghan government and help serve the Afghan government, but the Americans have come to kill us."
Rahimi said the incident showed why Karzai has repeatedly called for increased cooperation and communication between Afghan and international troops. He said an investigation into the incident had been opened.
The killings of civilians by international troops has been an ongoing problem in Afghanistan, and several recent civilian shootings prompted the upper house of parliament to pass a bill last month that would prohibit international forces from launching military operations unless they are attacked or have first consulted with the Afghan army, government or police.
In Nangarhar province in March - the same province of Tuesday's police shootings - 19 civilians were killed and 50 wounded by Marines Special Operations Forces who fired on civilians while speeding away from the site of a suicide bomb attack, casualties that sparked angry protests and denunciations of the U.S. presence there.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday said the impact of violence on civilians in Afghanistan is worse now than a year ago.
Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC's director of operations, said fighting between armed opposition groups and the Afghan army supported by international forces had intensified significantly in the south and east of the country since 2006 and was spreading to the north and west.
"Civilians suffer horribly from mounting threats to their security, such as increasing numbers of roadside bombs and suicide attacks, and regular aerial bombing raids," he said in a statement.
In the southern province of Kandahar, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed more than 24 suspected Taliban fighters during an eight-hour battle in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said Tuesday.
The troops were initially ambushed by militants in Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar province Monday, but retreated after several of their fighters were killed.
A force of some 30 Taliban later attacked the same coalition convoy, and Western forces called in airstrikes on a compound and a vehicle. "During the eight-hour battle, over two dozen enemy fighters were killed," the coalition said.
Meanwhile, three Afghan civilians were killed and two wounded in the eastern province of Kunar on Monday after a car drove through a NATO checkpoint and soldiers opened fire on it, said NATO's International Security Assistance Force. The car drove through the checkpoint despite the use of hand gestures and flashing lights, ISAF said.
Gen. Abdul Jalal Jalal, Kunar's provincial police chief, said one of the wounded civilians later died.
A roadside bomb attack 25 miles north of Kandahar city on Monday killed a Canadian soldier. The soldier, identified as Trooper Darryl Caswell of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, was the 57th Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, the Canadian military said. The death brings to at least 78 the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, including at least 39 Americans.
Violence has spiked in Afghanistan in recent weeks. More than 2,300 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on U.S., NATO and Afghan figures.
In Paktika province a roadside bomb hit a police vehicle in Gomal district on Monday, killing one policeman and wounding six, said Ghamai Khan, the governor's spokesman. Police later saw a Taliban militant planting another roadside bomb and killed him, he said.
In the eastern province of Paktia, Afghan police and U.S.-led coalition troops acting on a tip discovered rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and bomb-making materials hidden under two animal pens in an Afghan home. Militants fired machine guns and RPGS at the troops when they first entered the home, the coalition said in a statement.
The coalition said that local elders "vowed to track down" the bomb maker.