updated 2/22/2010 7:27:29 PM ET 2010-02-23T00:27:29

A NATO airstrike killed at least 27 civilians in central Afghanistan, the third time a mistaken coalition strike has killed noncombatants since the start of a major offensive aimed at winning over the population.

The top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized to the Afghan president, NATO said.

The Afghanistan Council of Ministers strongly condemned the airstrike in Uruzgan province, calling it "unjustifiable." An earlier statement issued Monday put the death toll at 33. It was not immediately clear why the figure had been revised.

Initial reports indicated that NATO planes fired at a convoy of three vehicles Sunday. The victims included 4 women and a child, Afghan officials said.

NATO confirmed that its planes fired on what it believed was a group of insurgents on their way to attack a joint NATO-Afghan patrol.

The Afghan government and NATO have launched an investigation.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary earlier said the airstrike hit three minibuses traveling on a major road near Uruzgan's border with central Day Kundi province. There were 42 people in the vehicles, all civilians, he said.

'Extremely saddened'
The NATO statement did not say how many people died or whether all the occupants of the vehicles were civilians.

"We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives," Gen. McChrystal said in the statement. "I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our effort to regain that trust."

In Washington, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen also expressed regret for the deadly airstrike on Monday. He also told reporters the military was making "steady progress" in its effort to retake the Taliban stronghold of Marjah but that the nation "must be patient."

Video: 'Unfortunate incident' On Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admonished NATO troops for not doing enough to protect civilian lives. During a speech at the opening session of the Afghan parliament, Karzai called for extra caution on the part of NATO, which is currently conducting a massive offensive on the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," Karzai said. "Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal."

NATO has gone to great lengths in recent months to reduce civilian casualties — primarily through reducing airstrikes and tightening rules of engagement — as part of a new strategy to focus on protecting the Afghan people to win their loyalty over from the Taliban.

But mistakes have continued. In the ongoing offensive against Marjah, two NATO rockets killed 12 people in one home and others have been caught in the crossfire. At least 16 civilians have been killed so far during the offensive, NATO says, though human rights groups say the number is at least 19.

On Thursday, an airstrike in northern Kunduz province missed targeted insurgents and killed seven policemen.

Tribal elders targeted
Elsewhere, police said a suicide bomber killed 15 people in eastern Afghanistan, including a key tribal leader who played a major role in a failed attempt to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001.

Police Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said the bomber set off his explosives in Khogyani district next to a small group of tribal elders and government workers as they were meeting Monday with a few hundred Afghan refugees who had recently returned from Pakistan.

Among the dead was Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, better known as Haji Zaman. He and another warlord from the Jalalabad area, Hazrat Ali, commanded Afghan forces who cornered the al-Qaida leader in the mountains of Nangarhar province but allowed him to slip away.

Video: Long campaign

Meanwhile, the Afghan Rights Monitor group said there was a shortage of medical care and food in the town of Marjah which U.S. Marines and Afghan troops invaded to flush out Taliban.

Ajmal Samadi, a spokesman for the group, said wheat flour is exchanging hands at twice the normal price.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that it had evacuated 28 sick and injured civilians from Marjah since the beginning of the offensive.

The newly appointed civilian chief for Marjah was to arrive Monday to begin the task of restoring government authority after years of Taliban rule even though NATO and Afghan forces are still battling insurgents in the area.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gen. McChrystal apologizes for Afghan civilian deaths

  1. Closed captioning of: Gen. McChrystal apologizes for Afghan civilian deaths

    >> thanks.

    >>> word today from afghanistan , it's happened again, an attack on suspected taliban insurge e nts by u.s. special forces sunday. it happened in central afghanistan , the worst such incident in more than five months. general stanley mcchrystal, the u.s. commander has apologized to afghanistan 's president.

    >>> now, to washington and politics.

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