Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that NATO's efforts to prevent civilian deaths during its operations are not enough because innocent people keep dying, as the military alliance continued its offensive in a key Taliban stronghold.
In a speech at the opening session of the Afghan parliament, Karzai also repeated his call to Taliban fighters to renounce al Qaeda and join with the government - an appeal that may have more resonance after recent arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.
Karzai held up a picture of an 8-year-old girl who he said was the only one left to recover the bodies of her 12 relatives, all killed when two NATO rockets struck their home during the offensive in the southern town of Marjah. He called the incident a tragedy for all Afghanistan.
Karzai said NATO has made progress in reducing civilian casualties and air bombardments - which have been responsible for some of the largest incidents of civilian deaths. And he thanked NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who attended the speech, for "standing with us honestly in this effort."
However, Karzai stressed that the effort is not sufficient.
"We need to reach the point where there are no civilian casualties," Karzai said. "Our effort and our criticism will continue until we reach that goal."
His comments came as NATO reported that its troops killed another civilian in Marjah, bringing the civilian death toll from the operation to at least 16.
NATO troops fired on the man after he dropped a box that they believed held a bomb and started running toward them, NATO said in a statement. They later found that the box contained materials that could have been used to make a bomb, but no explosive.
Despite the presence of the suspicious materials, NATO categorized the dead man as a civilian.
The unit involved will meet with local leaders to discuss how to keep such incidents from happening again, and make a traditional condolence payment to his family, NATO said.
The week-old operation in Marjah is a major test of a new NATO strategy that stresses protecting civilians over routing insurgents as quickly as possible.
But the strategy has proved difficult. The painstaking process of separating out innocent people from militants has also slowed troops' progress in gaining control of the town.
In Marjah on Saturday, small arms fire and single sniper rounds intensified in a pocket near the center of town as insurgent gun squads tried to close in on Marines, who fought back with their own sniper fire and grenade launchers.
"Fighting remains difficult in the northeast and west of Marjah, but insurgent activity is not limited to those areas," NATO said in a statement, a reminder that they continue to face stubborn resistance in the town of 80,000.
Reports From Marjah by CBS News Correspondent Mandy Clark:
Marines Under Sniper Fire
Inside Enemy Bunkers in Afghanistan
Marines Reach out to Marjah Population
Marines Drive Into Afghan Stronghold
Marines Engage Taliban on Edge of Marjah
Afghanistan: Life on the Frontline
The massive operation in Marjah - a major southern Taliban stronghold and drug hub - is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Twelve NATO troops have died so far in the offensive, and senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.
The plan is to secure the area and then rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning.
Outside of town, government workers are already signing up people for jobs working on rebuilding the area, NATO said. Meanwhile, compounds are being identified for schools, and the district governor has recorded a radio message urging insurgents to reintegrate. He provided a dedicated phone number for them to call if they want to switch sides.
Karzai also pressed Taliban fighters once again to put down their guns and join with the Afghan government.
"Stop the war. Come back to your home and help with the reconstruction," Karzai said. He said he was confident the appeal he has been making for years has more chance of succeeding now that the international community is supporting the idea. Saudi Arabia has long been involved in trying to broker talks with the Taliban, and other nations also backed the idea at a recent conference in London.
Pakistan, meanwhile, appears to have become more strident in tracking down Taliban leaders who have sought sanctuary there. A number of high-profile arrests have been made there in recent weeks and a CIA missile strike that killed the brother of a Taliban commander in Pakistan suggests the Pakistanis may be providing vital intelligence to the United States.
The Afghan president spoke to about 200 lawmakers in parliament's grand main hall in the capital. The parliamentarians were returning to work after a recess of about one month.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Interior Ministry said two people were killed Saturday when their motorcycle hit a roadside bomb in the Nari Saraj district of Helmand province, while four others died when a roadside bomb exploded Friday near their car in the Daman district of neighboring Kandahar province.
By Associated Press Writer Heidi Vogt; AP Writer Alfred de Montesquiou contributed to this report from Marjah, Afghanistan