The United States has moved to end the tense standoff with Afghan president Hamid Karzai over his refusal to sign a security pact between the two countries by formally apologising for a US drone strike in Helmand province that killed a toddler and injured two women.

The apology was delivered in a phone call to Karzai late on Thursday by marine General Joseph Dunford, the top US and Nato commander inAfghanistan. A spokesman for Dunford told Associated Press that the commander had spoken directly to Karzai and “expressed deep regrets for the incident and any civilian casualties” that had arisen from the airstrike earlier on Thursday.

Dunford also promised an immediate investigation by Nato into the incident.

The US-Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA) was endorsed at a loya jirga (national gathering) convened by Karzai last week, which wasexpected to finalise the deal after a year of painful negotiations.

A letter from US president Barack Obama – which Karzai had demanded and read from at the opening ceremony – said the US had already “redoubled our efforts to ensure that Afghan homes are respected by our forces” and continued to “make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our own citizens”.

But the Afghan president then stunned both his own allies and American officials by announcing he would not sign the pact until after presidential elections next year to choose his successors. He also laid out new conditions for America to meet, including freeing all Afghan prisoners from Guantánamo Bay and ending raids on Afghan homes.

Thursday’s bombing will make it even harder for Karzai to sign the pact, as it compounds earlier US violations of Afghan trust by betraying Obama’s promises just days after they were made, Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told the Guardian.

“That is how the US respects the sanctity and dignity of homes in the US, bombing a residence for an individual? It is just another example of not fulfilling the commitments of the past by the US,” Faizi said.

“We want an immediate halt or end to all military operations on Afghan homes otherwise it will further delay the signing of BSA, which will not be in our mutual interests.”

A coalition official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject denied that the bomb hit a home. He said it was aimed at an insurgent travelling on a motorbike along a stretch of road with no homes nearby. The target was a mid-level commander who smuggled guns and homemade bombs to insurgents in Helmand. He was killed by a second bomb launched soon after the first missed him, but hit the civilians.

After a series of disastrous airstrikes that killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, including dozens siphoning fuel off a stolen tanker and others gathered for a large wedding party, Nato has more recently tightened procedures for bombings to try to limit deaths.

The number of civilian deaths from airstrikes fell by more than one third in the first half of this year, but around 50 people were kiled, according to United Nations statistics. Overall, the Taliban and other insurgent groups were responsible for three-quarters of civilian casualties.

source: Guardian UK