An explosives-rigged minivan crashed into a convoy of Marines that U.S. officials said also came under fire from militant gunmen Sunday. As many as 10 people were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made a frenzied escape, and injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.
U.S. officials said militant gunfire may have killed or injured civilians, but Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry and wounded Afghans said most of the bullets were American. Hundreds of angry Afghans protested near the blast site, denouncing the U.S. presence here.
As the Americans fled, they treated every car and person along the busy, tree-lined highway as a potential attacker, said Mohammad Khan Katawazi, the district chief of Shinwar in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
“I saw them turning and firing in this direction, then turning and firing in that direction,” Ahmed Najib, a 23-year-old hit by a bullet in his right shoulder, said of the U.S. forces. “I even saw a farmer shot by the Americans.”
Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said gunmen may have fired on U.S. forces at multiple points during the escape. He said it was not yet clear how the casualties happened, though he left open the possibility that U.S. forces had shot civilians.
“It’s not entirely clear right now if the people killed or wounded by gunfire were killed or wounded by coalition forces gunfire or enemy attackers gunfire,” he said.
The accusation that U.S. forces killed or wounded so many Afghans was likely to cause an uproar in a country that has seen an untold number of civilians killed by international forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. A high-level delegation was appointed to investigate.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pleaded repeatedly for Western troops to take care not to harm civilians, and in December wept during a speech lamenting civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100 Afghan civilians died as a result of NATO and coalition assaults in 2006. An AP tally, based on reports from Afghan, NATO and coalition officials, puts the overall civilian death toll in 2006 at 834, most from militant attacks.
Witnesses report indiscriminate fire
Nine witnesses — including five Afghans recuperating from bullet wounds in the hospital — told The Associated Press that U.S. forces fired indiscriminately along at least a six-mile stretch of one of eastern Afghanistan’s busiest highways — a route often filled not only with cars and trucks but Afghans on foot and bicycles.
“They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway,” said Tur Gul, 38, who was standing on the roadside by a gas station and was shot twice in his right hand. “They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot.”
The tolls varied. The Interior Ministry said 10 people were killed, while the provincial health chief said eight died.
The U.S. military said eight civilians were killed and 34 wounded after earlier saying 16 were killed and 24 wounded. It did not explain the revised, lower death toll, saying only that the new figures were “the most accurate numbers to date.” A U.S. Marine was also injured in the suicide blast.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the chief of the Interior Ministry’s criminal division would lead a delegation including a U.S.-led coalition official to Nangarhar province Monday to investigate.
“The coalition says they have proof that gunmen opened fire,” said Bashary. “But I think more of the gunfire was from the (U.S.) side.”
Malik Shakan, 45, a village elder, said “I can assure you 100 percent” that no militants had fired on the Americans. But Accetta said it was possible villagers wouldn’t have seen gunmen firing from covered positions and that their attention would have been fixed on the U.S. vehicles.
The gunfire from Americans prompted angry demonstrations in the region — just 30 miles west of the Pakistan border. Hundreds of Afghans blocked the road and threw rocks at police, with some demonstrators shouting “Death to America! Death to Karzai!”
At the Jalalabad hospital, several victims said the American convoy approached them on the highway and opened fire. As the convoy neared, many cars pulled over to the side of the road, but were still hit by gunfire.
“When we parked our vehicle, when they passed us, they opened fire on our vehicle,” said 15-year-old Mohammad Ishaq, who was hit by two bullets, in his left arm and his right ear. “It was a convoy of three American Humvees. All three humvees were firing around.”
Mohammad Karim, an 18-year-old employee at a hotel near the blast site, said he ran outside after the explosion and saw American forces fire a stream of bullets at a four-wheel drive vehicle.
“I ran to the vehicle to see how many people were inside. We found three dead bodies, and one wounded, but he was also in a very critical condition,” he said. “All four people were from one family. The one who was wounded was about 20 years old.”
An AP reporter at the scene said the vehicle was riddled by dozens of bullets.
U.S. forces later deleted photos of the vehicle taken by a freelance photographer working for The Associated Press and video taken by a freelancer working for AP Television News. Neither the photographer nor the cameraman witnessed the suicide attack or the subsequent gunfire.
The freelance photographer, Rahmat Gul, said an American soldier took his camera and deleted the photos, saying he didn’t have permission to take them. Gul said a soldier later said it was OK to take photos, but that the first soldier came back and angrily told him to delete the photos again. Gul said the soldier then raised his fist as if he was going to strike Gul.
The U.S. forces involved in the attack and ensuing gunfire were part of the U.S.-led coalition, not NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. An official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information said the troops were Marine Special Operations Forces.
A man claiming to speak for a breakaway faction of the militant group Hezb-e-Islami, a group he said is linked with the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the bombing and identified the attacker as an Afghan named Haji Ihsanullah in a telephone call to AP. The purported spokesman identified himself as Qari Sajjad.
Accetta, the coalition spokesman, said the attack demonstrated the militants’ “blatant disregard for human life” by attacking forces in a populated area. NATO officials repeatedly say that suicide bombs aimed at international and Afghan forces kill far more civilians than soldiers.
Khan Mohammad, who was being treated at the Jalalabad hospital for a shrapnel wound from the blast, said he was driving directly behind the suicide bomber’s minivan. The large blast shattered Mohammad’s windshield, and something hit his forehead, he said.
“The minivan that was in front of us was in small pieces on the road,” he said.
Elsewhere, two British soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the British defense ministry said Sunday. The deaths Saturday brought to 50 the number of British troops killed since a U.S.-led invasion overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in November 2001.