Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Smith, a Nato spokesman, said he was concerned about reports of civilian loss of life.
 
"However, it must be noted that it was insurgents who initiated this attack, and in choosing to conduct such attacks in this location and at the time, the risk to civilians was probably deliberate."
 
The Taliban confirmed its fighters from the group had ambushed troops in the area but said its fighters "left the area before the air strike", Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman, said.
 
Fighting intensifying
 
Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the provincial police chief, said on Friday that fighters had attacked police posts in the south of the country, sparking clashes and the air strikes that left 45 dead.

 

The dead included nine women and three children aged from six months to two years old, police said.

 

Andiwal said the fighters used civilian houses for cover in Gereshk district of Helmand.

 

On Thursday, suspected Taliban members had attacked a police patrol in eastern Afghanistan, killing three officers and wounding another.

 

With fighting intensifying, especially in Afghanistan's south and east, Taliban and other fighters are locked in daily battles with foreign and Afghan troops trying to support the government of Hamid Karzai, the president.

 

In all, more than 2,400 people - most of them alleged fighters - have died in fighting this year, according to an Associated Press tally.

 

Appeal to Canada 

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary-general, has urged Canada to prolong its mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009, as Canadians mourn the deaths of three more soldiers this week.

 

Canada has deployed 2,500 troops in
southern Afghanistan[EPA]
"If you ask me: will the Nato mission continue? My answer is categorically 'yes,'" he told reporters on Thursday at the International Economic Forum  of the Americas in Montreal.

 

"I would of course hope, as the secretary-general of Nato ...  that [February 2009] is not the end of (Canada's military mission),  and that is my message to Canadians," he said, adding that it would  take more time to rebuild and develop democratic institutions in the country.

 

Canada has deployed 2,500 troops in southern Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

 

De Hoop Scheffer's request to extend the mission comes one day after three Canadian soldiers died in a roadside blast in the Kandahar region.

 

Ninety-one foreign soldiers have now died in Afghanistan this year, most of them in combat and about half of them from the US which has the most soldiers in the international operation in Afghanistan. 

 

Taliban on the wane? 

Khalili was in Tokyo for a conference on the 
disbanding of illegal armed groups [AFP]

Meanwhile, a senior Afghan leader has said that the Taliban is on the wane and that he is optimistic about the country's future.

 

Karim Khalili, Afghanistan's second vice-president, told a news conference in Tokyo on Friday: "We are hopeful about our future because the Taliban's attempts to expand their influence have failed so far."

 

The Taliban is fighting against the Western-backed government after it was overthrown by US-led forces in 2001.

 

Khalili said: "The Taliban's activity is weakening if you compare the number of terrorist attacks attempted by them this year and last year."