Germany’s armed forces on Friday said they had called the Nato airstrike on two hijacked fuel tankers in northern Afghanistan that burned more than 50 people to death.

A German army spokesman told news agency dpa that a German reconstruction team based in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan had requested the attack, which caused jet fuel in the tankers to ignite.

Mohammed Omar, the governor of Kunduz, told the Financial Times by telephone that the Taliban had stolen the vehicles, which exploded as villagers gathered near a river-bank in the middle of the night to collect fuel.

However, the German defence ministry said it did not believe that bystanders were among the dead. German aircraft were not involved in the attack.

“After observing that only insurgents were in the area, the local ISAF commander ordered air strikes which destroyed the fuel trucks and killed a large number of insurgents,” a spokesperson for Nato’s International Security Assistance Force told Reuters. “The strike was against insurgents. That is who we believe was killed.”

Civilian casualties from Nato strikes have caused outrage among Afghans. The new commander of Nato and US forces in the country, General Stanley McChrystal, has made curbing such casualties a main focus of his strategy

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised a full investigation into reports of civilian deaths.

If it does emerge that civilians were caught up in the blast the incident could rekindle local anger at the continuing presence of Nato troops in Afghanistan.

Violence against German troops based in the north of Afghanistan has steadily increased in recent months, prompting the Bundeswehr’s first major offensive against insurgents in the run-up to the recent Afghan election.

News that German commanders were involved may also come as a severe blow to Berlin’s efforts to convince a sceptical public that the mission in Afghanistan is worth completing.

The conflict has so far played a relatively minor role in the German election campaign, as the two major parties that make up the governing grand-coalition agree that the mission should continue.

The radical Left party is campaigning to bring German troops home from Afghanistan and captured a larger-than-expected share of the vote in last weekend’s three regional elections.

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