At least 27 civilians were killed in a Nato air strike in southern Afghanistan yesterday, prompting a furious response from Afghan officials. The airstrike – in which four women and a child are known to have died – brought a personal apology from General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, to the president, Hamid Karzai.It added to growing anger over the number of civilian casualties in the Afghan conflict, and came hours after Karzai had urged Nato to do more to protect civilians.In a statement, the Afghanistan council of ministers condemned the air strike as “unjustifiable”.The cabinet said initial reports indicated that Nato had fired on a convoy of three vehicles, killing at least 27 people and injuring a further 12.McChrystal spoke to Karzai yesterday to express his regret and promise an investigation.“We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives,” he said.“I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our effort to regain that trust.”Syed Zahir Shah, the police chief of Kajran district, in Daikondi province, said he spent all day yesterday helping to recover body parts so they could be prepared for burial.He said three four-wheel drive vehicles were hit while travelling through a Taliban area. The vehicles were carrying passengers from Day Kundi province to various destinations, including Kandahar, Herat and Iran.All the victims were Hazaras, the ethnic group from the central highlands who have always opposed the Taliban. Shah said the injured included a six-year-old child who was taken for treatment in Uruzgan and a nine-year-old girl.He said all the vehicles were entirely destroyed and that many of the bodies were so badly disfigured it was hard to identify them. Locals say the injured were taken by helicopter to the US military base at Bagram, north of Kabul.The attack triggered fury from local politicians, including Muhammad Hashim Watanwali, an MP from Uruzgan, who said Nato and Hamid Karzai had repeatedly promised to bring a stop to civilian casualties, including most recently at the opening of parliament on Saturday.Amanullah Hotak, head of Uruzgan’s provincial council, demanded a government investigation into what happened.He said: “We don’t want their apologies or the money they always give after every attack. We want them to kill all of us together instead of doing it to us one by one.”Nato confirmed that its planes had fired on what it believed was a group of insurgents on their way to attack a joint Nato and Afghan patrol in the southern Uruzgan province.The organisation said it had later discovered that women and children had been hurt in the strike.The incident was not part of Operation Moshtarak, the major offensive to combat the Taliban in Helmand province.Zemeri Bashary, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman, said the airstrike hit three minibuses on a main road near the Uruzgan border with the central Day Kundi province.Bashary said the 42 people in the vehicles were all civilians.On Saturday, Karzai criticised Nato troops for not doing enough to protect civilian lives.During a speech to the opening session of the Afghan parliament he called for extra caution from Nato.“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.”Nato claims it has taken steps to reduce civilian casualties, primarily through reducing air strikes and tightening its rules of engagement.However, in the offensive against Marjah, two Nato rockets killed 12 people in one house and others were caught in the crossfire.Nato said at least 16 civilians had been killed during the offensive so far, although human rights groups claim the total is at least 19.Last Thursday, an air strike in the northern Kunduz province missed the insurgents it was targeting and killed seven policemen.The continued loss of civilian lives will make it harder for Nato as it attempts to win the support of local Afghans against Taliban militants in the south.