KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai Thursday denounced the use of gunfire by U.S. troops to suppress Afghans angered by a traffic accident involving a military truck that sparked the worst riots in the capital since the fall of the Taliban.
“The coalition opened fire, and we strongly condemn that,” Karzai said in a national radio address.
Speaking in his native Pashto language, Karzai used formulations that left open whether the U.S. troops had fired into a crowd that had gathered at the scene of Monday’s accident, or only over their heads.
Meanwhile, a top judge said Thursday that foreigners could be tried for crimes committed in Afghanistan, after parliament called for the prosecution of Americans involved in a road accident that sparked a deadly riot in Kabul.
But U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said that American troops in Afghanistan can’t be punished under local law — exposing a difference of opinion that could cause friction with Afghans disenchanted over the heavy U.S. presence in the country.
Rioters: ‘Death to America!’
Afghan authorities and the U.S. military are investigating Monday’s crash in which a U.S. truck that the military says suffered brake failure rammed into cars at an intersection, killing up to five people.
Investigators are also looking at whether U.S. troops fired on Afghans angered by the accident, which sparked citywide rioting, with hundreds rampaging through Kabul, shouting “Death to America!” In all, about 20 people died, mostly from gunshot wounds, Afghan authorities said.
Afghan lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution Tuesday calling for local prosecution of troops responsible for the crash, but Neumann told National Public Radio that U.S. troops aren’t bound by Afghan law.
“No. They are not,” Neumann told the U.S. network in remarks broadcast Thursday. “But should the investigation reveal some wrongdoing, I’m sure the military would follow up on its own.”
He said the U.S. military hadn’t signed any pact with Afghanistan that would allow local prosecutors to try U.S. forces in an Afghan court.
“I don’t want to turn lawyer without being absolutely sure of my grounds, but you really can’t fight a war that way,” he said.
The deputy chief justice of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, Abdul Malik Kamawi, said his interpretation of Afghan law is that if a foreigner commits a crime in the country, they’re subject to trial there.
The lawmakers’ motion can’t compel the judiciary to pursue any charges against U.S. troops, and no senior Afghan executive official has indicated they desire to.
Driver not suspended
Col. Tom Collins, a U.S. military spokesman, said the driver of the truck was not suspected of any wrongdoing and had not been arrested. He said the truck’s brakes are believed to have overheated and failed.
However, he said the military was investigating whether the troops involved in the crash fired their guns into a group of violent demonstrators or over their heads. He said some of the rioters who were throwing stones at the U.S. troops also had weapons and were shooting at them.
“Our soldiers used their weapons to defend themselves,” he said. Asked if this meant that they fired into or over the crowd, Collins said, “Our investigation is still looking into this.”
The unrest, seemingly fueled by widespread poverty and unemployment, has added to President Hamid Karzai’s woes as militant supporters of the Taliban regime ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 step up attacks and fighting grips volatile southern and eastern regions of the country.
On Wednesday, Bush spoke with Karzai and pledged a comprehensive inquiry into the riots in Kabul, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
“They talked about recent developments and the need to continue with police reform and capacity building,” Snow said. “The president expressed sympathy for those killed and injured in Kabul on Monday and pledged a full investigation.”
Troops under U.S. jurisdiction
It seems unlikely the parliamentary motion would lead to any action. U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan come under American military jurisdiction, although foreigners working on civilian projects are generally subject to Afghan law.
The unrest has shaken confidence in authorities’ control of the capital — which is patrolled by NATO peacekeepers and is regarded as relatively secure — certainly in comparison to the lawless south, which is wracked by the fiercest clashes in four years.
Early Wednesday, hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters besieged the police headquarters in Chora, a remote town in Uruzgan province, running off 100 police inside and occupying the compound for hours before slipping away again, said Rozi Khan, the regional police chief.
They left behind scorched police vehicles and buildings, he said, adding that police were not returning immediately, fearing an ambush.
The attack underscored the tenuous grip Karzai’s government has on the countryside, particularly in the Taliban’s former southern heartland.
Uruzgan lies on that region’s northern fringes and hundreds of Dutch forces are set to deploy to the province later this year as part of an expansion of NATO forces into the south.
Afghanistan’s post-Taliban security forces of 58,000 police and 38,000 soldiers are teaming up with more than 30,000 U.S.-led coalition and NATO troops aiming to calm the country. But security has worsened since the rebels stepped up attacks this spring. In the past two weeks alone, more than 400 people, mostly militants, have been killed in fighting.
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