Nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the eastern Afghanistan mountains were killed by NATO helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents, according to a statement Wednesday by NATO, which apologized for the mistake.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the eastern Afghanistan mountains were killed by NATO helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents, according to a statement Wednesday by NATO, which apologized for the mistake.

The boys, who were 9 to 15 years old, were attacked Tuesday in what amounted to one of the war’s worst cases of mistaken killings by foreign-led forces. The victims included two sets of brothers. A 10th boy survived.

The NATO statement said the boys had been misidentified as the attackers of a NATO base earlier in the day, and included an unusual personal apology by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. News of the attack enraged Afghans and led to an anti-U.S. demonstration on Wednesday in the village of Nanglam, where the boys were from. The only survivor, Hemad, 11, said his mother had told him to go out with other boys to collect firewood because, “The weather is very cold now.”

“We were almost done collecting the wood when suddenly we saw the helicopters come,” said Hemad, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. “There were two of them. The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting.”

Petraeus pledged to investigate the attack and to take disciplinary action if appropriate.

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” he said. “These deaths should have never happened.”

It was the third instance in two weeks in which the Afghan government has accused NATO of killing civilians. NATO strongly disputes one of those reports, but another — the killing of an Afghan Army soldier and his family in Nangarhar province Feb. 20 — was also described as an accident.

The attack on the boys occurred high in the mountains outside Nanglam in the Pech Valley of Kunar Province. U.S. troops are preparing to close their bases in the valley in the next several weeks. The area is poor, and the only major road was built to service Forward Operating Base Blessing, according to local residents.

A rocket attack on the base Tuesday led to the helicopter search for the insurgents responsible, the NATO statement said.

President Hamid Karzai, who was in London for an official visit, condemned the attack. Calling it “ruthless,” he questioned whether the Western goals of combating terrorism and securing Afghanistan could be achieved if civilians continued to die.