President Hamid Karzai yesterday rejected an apology by the US general running the military campaign in his country for the deaths of nine boys in an attack by a helicopter gunship, sending relations with Washington to a new low.

Mr Karzai’s increasingly angry public and private criticism of the US-led forces in Afghanistan threatens a breakdown in the crucial relationship between the Afghan government and Washington.

Mr Karzai said the Afghans would lose trust in international forces as a result of the civilian casualties, and any more would be “unacceptable”.

His comments came despite speaking to US President Barack Obama in an hour-long video teleconference last Wednesday, the day the boys were killed in northeast Afghanistan. Mr Obama “expressed his deep regret”, the White House said.

The US strategy in Afghanistan depends on transferring responsibility for security and governance to the local government, which requires co-operation that is imperilled by civilian casualties and disputes between Kabul and Washington.

General David Petraeus met Mr Karzai yesterday and apologised for the attack in Kunar province, in which nine boys, aged seven to 13, were shot by coalition helicopters.

“The apology is not enough,” Mr Karzai said. “Civilian casualties produced by the military operations of coalition forces are the cause of tension between Afghanistan and the US. The people of Afghanistan are fed up with these brutal incidents, and apologies and condemnation cannot cure their pain.”

But according to the UN, three-quarters of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by Taliban fighters.

Some occur in attacks on targets such as banks, shopping malls and sports events. Yesterday, a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Paktika, assumed to be planted by the insurgents, killed up to 12 civilians, including five children.

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