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Afghan troops killed in friendly fire with NATO

KABUL - Mistaking each other for the enemy, NATO forces and Afghan soldiers battled in the morning darkness yesterday in a shootout that left at least four Afghan soldiers dead and prompted the Defense Ministry to call for the perpetrators to be punished.

A joint patrol of Afghan and coalition forces took gunfire around 3 a.m. while on a mission in the Sayyidabad district of Wardak province, according to the NATO-led coalition and Afghan militaries. After returning fire and calling in an aircraft attack, coalition forces later realized that the initial shooting had come from an Afghan National Army outpost.

The Afghan Defense Ministry condemned the friendly-fire attack, which they said wounded other soldiers in addition to the four who were killed. "After the investigation is completed, the Defense Ministry wants to bring those responsible to justice," the ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Taliban yesterday denied meeting with the United Nations' special representative in Afghanistan and vowed to persist in its war "against the invaders." The denial came in response to news reports that Kai Eide, the outgoing UN envoy, held a meeting in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, earlier this month with members of the Taliban leadership.

The UN has not confirmed that such a meeting took place, although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Paris on Friday that Eide wanted to draw "his own conclusion about the mind-set of some of the Taliban members." In an e-mailed statement, the Taliban leadership council described such a meeting as "mere futile and baseless rumors."

Western officials in Kabul said that the majority of the Taliban leadership, believed to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, remain staunchly opposed to any negotiations with coalition forces. Arsallah Rahmani, a former minister in the Taliban government, said Eide did meet with Taliban officials, but he described the dialogue as in its infancy. "It's a very sensitive issue right now," he said.

As for Saturday's friendly fire, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Shahidullah Shahid, said U.S. Special Forces soldiers had completed an operation with Afghan soldiers, detained suspected insurgents and were on their way back to base when the shooting broke out.

In November, eight Afghans, including four soldiers, were killed when fighting broke out as U.S. soldiers searched for a paratrooper who'd gone missing in a river in Baghdis province. Afghan officials blamed several of those deaths on an errant NATO airstrike.

The coalition forces' statement called yesterday's attack a "regrettable incident." Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said: "We work extremely hard to coordinate and synchronize our operations."

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