KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - The top NATO commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that he is committed to reducing the loss of innocent lives to an absolute minimum.
The statement marked Gen. David Petraeus' latest attempt to ease President Hamid Karzai's anger over civilian casualties. Karzai exploded in rage after a recent air attack that killed at least nine civilians in Helmand province in the south.
After that attack, Karzai ordered the U.S.-led coalition to stop bombing homes because too many civilians were being killed. It was Karzai's strongest-ever statement against NATO alliance airstrikes and further complicated a difficult relationship with the Obama administration as it prepares a troop drawdown in the increasingly unpopular war.
In a visit to Khost province in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, Petraeus expressed his "absolute commitment to reducing to the absolute minimum the loss of innocent, civilian lives" during operations targeting insurgents.
NATO has significantly reduced civilian casualties in recent years, but civilians deaths from insurgent attacks have spiked.
"We share President Karzai's emotion about this," Petraeus said. "We are here to protect the people, to safeguard them, not to harm them or their property."
Petraeus and Karzai are expected to discuss the sensitive issue at a meeting this weekend.
Karzai regularly and publicly condemns NATO for not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties. But international military officials say that in private discussions Afghan officials say NATO should keep up the pace of night raids and airstrikes because they are effective. Those officials have always spoken anonymously so as not to contradict the Afghan government.
Karzai's spokesman said, however, that Karzai intends to stand firm on the issue this time, regardless of the fallout with NATO.
The coalition said at least nine civilians were killed in Helmand's Nawzad district. Afghan officials have said 14 were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also tried this week to smooth relations.
"The Afghan people have put up with 30 years of war, and I think President Karzai is reflecting the pain and suffering that the Afghan people have had to endure," Gates said during a stop this week on his last trip through Asia as head of the U.S. Defense Department.
"But at the same time," Gates said, "I think he also recognizes, and the Afghan people do, that we are their ally and we are their friend and we are trying to help them develop the capability to protect themselves so that the Afghan people can see and end to this kind of conflict."
Separately on Thursday, NATO said it captured a senior al-Qaida operative and former Osama bin Laden associate in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. NATO did not identify the man, but said he was based in Pakistan and was a former associate of bin Laden. He was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan on May 2. NATO also said the man captured on Wednesday may have been with the al-Qaida leader in 2001.
NATO said 35 people associated with al-Qaida and the Taliban have been captured in Balkh since February.
Also in the north, the German army said one of its soldiers was killed and five others were wounded in a bomb attack in Baghlan province. A spokesman for the Bundeswehr Operations Command in Potsdam, Germany, said the attack on a German tank occurred Thursday morning about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of the city of Kunduz.
In the east, a Polish soldier died in combat Thursday in an insurgent attack that left two others injured in Ghazni province, Poland's military said.
In the south, insurgents attacked a road construction crew building a highway in Uruzgan province, killing two security guards and a police officer, said Milad Ahmad Mudasir, the governor's spokesman. NATO troops attacked the insurgents and killed a Taliban shadow governor in the province, as well as arresting two other Taliban commanders, Mudasir said.
The coalition said a NATO service member was killed in a roadside bomb attack in the south, but disclosed no other details.
In Kandahar, the largest city in the south, a roadside bomb targeting a police vehicle killed one man, said Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq. Eight other people were wounded - five men and three children - in the blast, according to Dr. Irfan Azeem, a doctor at the city hospital.
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)