* Five Taliban leaders among fighters killed in strike
* NATO says two civilians killed in separate incident
(adds NATO killing civilians in separate incident)
By Ismail Sameem
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Oct 3 (Reuters) - At least three Afghan civilians were killed along with 17 insurgents in a NATO air strike targeting senior Taliban commanders in southern Helmand province, the provincial police chief said on Sunday.
In a separate incident, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said its troops accidentally killed two civilians in a province just south of the capital, Kabul.
The spreading insurgency has made this year the bloodiest in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001.
Civilians are killed by both sides, but deaths of civilians in NATO attacks are a frequent cause of Afghan public anger and friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies.
Police chief Abdul Hakim Angar said four civilians were also wounded in the strike, called in to kill militants meeting in the Nad Ali district of Helmand, the province which produces most of Afghanistan's opium and is a bastion of the insurgency.
"During the air operation, 17 Taliban were killed, including five of their group leaders, as were three civilians," Abdul Hakim Angar told Reuters by phone. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
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ISAF said it was aware of reports of civilian casualties, but declined immediate comment on the total number of people killed in Saturday's raid, or the number of possible civilian casualties.
In the second incident, ISAF said it had accidentally killed two civilians when insurgents attacked a military base in Baraki Barak district of Logar province south of Kabul.
The civilians were killed when ISAF forces returned fire following a mortar or rocket attack by the insurgents, it said in a statement. The incident was under investigation.
A mid-year United Nations report painted a dark picture of security in Afghanistan in the first half of 2010, with violent civilian deaths jumping 31 percent, although the total number caused by aerial attacks fell 64 percent.
General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, last year issued a new tactical directive to limit air strikes and new rules for house searches after a spate of deadly incidents involving civilians.
General David Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal in June, told the 150,000-odd U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan that "the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain".
Last week, ISAF said an air strike by its forces killed four Afghan civilians and wounded three others in Ghazni province, southwest of the capital Kabul.
Days before that the Afghan government and ISAF said they were separately investigating reports of civilian casualties caused by an air attack in eastern Laghman province.
(Reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar, Emma-Graham Harrison and Jonathon Burch in Kabul; Writing by Sayed Salahuddin)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)
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