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updated 5/29/2010 5:47:34 AM ET 2010-05-29T09:47:34

Inexperienced operators of a U.S. drone aircraft ignored or downplayed signs that civilians were aboard a convoy blasted by American missiles in Afghanistan earlier this year, said a military investigation report released Saturday.

At least 23 people were killed in the Feb. 21 attack in Uruzgan province — the deadliest assault on Afghan civilians in six months. It occurred even as NATO forces were redoubling efforts to avoid killing innocents.

The attack prompted a strong rebuke from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a quick apology from the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is struggling to gain the broad support among Afghans that is crucial to winning the almost nine-year-old war.

The Taliban are responsible for the majority of civilian conflict deaths in the country, but the issue is a sensitive one for U.S.-led foreign troops, who are frequently accused of using indiscriminate firepower to fight the insurgency.

In his response to the report, McChrystal said in a statement he had issued letters reprimanding four senior and two junior officers in Afghanistan. He also called on the Air Force to investigate the actions of the Predator crew.

"Our most important mission here is to protect the Afghan people," McChrystal said in the statement. "Inadvertently killing or injuring civilians is heartbreaking and undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will do all we can to regain that trust."

Flawed analysis
In the February incident, attack helicopters fired missiles and rockets into the convoy on a main road near Khod village, where U.S. Special Forces were battling militants at the time, said the executive summary of the investigation.

Commanders judged that the convoy contained fighters heading toward the village to reinforce the militants.

But the order to attack was based on inaccurate information from the crew of a Predator drone monitoring the convoy from an Air Force base in Nevada and on flawed analysis of the situation by NATO commanders, the report said.

Poorly functioning command posts "failed to provide the ground force commander with the evidence and analysis that the vehicles were not a hostile threat and the inaccurate and unprofessional reporting of the Predator crew ... deprived the ground force commander of vital information," the report said.

"Information that the convoy was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed by the Predator crew," it said.

Airstrikes accounted for about 60 percent of the nearly 600 civilians killed by NATO and allied Afghan forces in 2009, according to a U.N. report.

However, that percentage is significantly lower than the previous year, the U.N. said, attributing the drop to NATO directives to only conduct airstrikes as a last resort or if they are certain their are no civilians present.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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