Kabul: NATO said an airstrike in northern Afghanistan on Thursday killed about a dozen insurgents, but President Hamid Karzai said the victims were campaign workers seeking votes in this month`s Parliamentary Elections.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, arrived in the Afghan capital for meetings with Karzai and NATO commander Gen David Petraeus. The Pentagon chief also plans to visit US troops in Afghanistan.
NATO said its airstrike on a car in northern Takhar province`s normally quiet Rustaq district killed or wounded as many as 12 insurgents, including a Taliban commander and a local head of an allied insurgent group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
However, the office of Karzai - who repeatedly warns that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts - issued a statement condemning the attack, saying 10 campaign workers had been killed and two wounded.
Takhar Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa said the car in which candidate Abdul Wahid Khorasani had been riding was fired on by helicopters following an initial pass by fighter jets. He called the incident an obvious mistake.
"There aren`t even any Taliban in this area," Taqwa said.
An alliance spokesman said it was aware of the claims that civilians were killed and would conduct a thorough investigation.
"What I can say is these vehicles were nowhere near a populated area and we`re confident this strike hit only the targeted vehicle after days of tracking the occupants` activity," said Maj Gen David Garza, the deputy chief of staff for joint operations in Afghanistan.
Another NATO spokesman said the vehicle hit had stopped at least twice prior to the attack, during which men armed with rifles were observed exiting it before re-entering.
"We stand by the information in the release, and it is important to note that there was considerable time spent watching and waiting prior to the engagement," James Judge said.
A local politician with knowledge of the incident, but who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the attack may have been tied to rivalries among ethnic Uzbek politicians in the province.
Afghan politicians have in the past been accused of deliberately feeding false information to foreign forces in hopes of prompting attacks and eliminating rivals. Political violence is on the rise ahead of the September 18 polls, with at least three candidates and five campaign workers killed.