KABUL - A NATO helicopter gunship inadvertently killed two civilians while attacking suspected insurgents in the eastern province of Khost, NATO announced Thursday.

The attack killed a suspected Haqqani network leader and two other insurgents in Tere Zayi district on Wednesday, NATO said.

"At the time of the strike, two civilians were walking near the moving targeted vehicle," NATO said. "They were previously unseen by coalition forces prior to the initiation of the airstrike. Unfortunately both were killed as an unintended result of the strike."

Khost provincial police chief Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai said at least one of the civilians was a child.

NATO's first description of the attack said a "precision airstrike" killed the Haqqani leader and two other insurgents while they were driving in a vehicle. That announcement also described how NATO troops nearly missed civilians near the site of the attack.

"Just prior to the weapon impact, an unassociated civilian vehicle and two pedestrians walking in a wadi appeared next to the target vehicle," NATO said. A wadi is a dry riverbed.

Afghan forces determined that the occupants of the vehicle close to the targeted one were unharmed, NATO said.

Accidental deaths of civilians due to coalition military operations in Afghanistan are a major source of tensions between Afghans and NATO.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently after NATO troops in a helicopter gunship misidentified nine children gathering firewood for insurgents and killed them. The killings sparked protests throughout the country and calls for the international force to cease airstrikes and night raids.

At least 2,777 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2010, a 15 percent increase over the prior year, according to a recent United Nations report. The insurgency was blamed for most of those deaths, and while civilian deaths attributed to NATO troops declined 21 percent in 2010, Afghan leaders say the number remains too high.

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Latest identification

• Staff Sgt. Joshua S. Gire, 28, of Chillicothe, Ohio.

• Pfc. Michael C. Mahr, 26, of Homosassa, Fla.

Both were assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion, 18th Engineer Brigade, Bamberg, Germany.

SOURCE: Department of Defense