A suicide bomber struck U.S. troops patrolling on foot in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least two soldiers and three civilians and wounding at least nine others, officials said.
The blast followed an allegation from President Hamid Karzai that clashes between U.S.-led troops and insurgents left 17 civilians dead earlier in the week. The U.S. military insists all 32 people killed in the fighting were militants.
It also comes at a time when the U.S. is rushing 20,000 American troops into Afghanistan to combat a Taliban insurgency that has sent violence to record levels.
U.S. officials have warned the violence will probably intensify in the coming year. More U.S. troops, 151, died in Afghanistan in 2008 than in any other year since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban.
The bomber hit the U.S. patrol on a busy street lined with shops in Kandahar province's Maywand district, said district chief Naimatullah Khan. Helicopters took away American casualties, said Khan, but he could not provide any numbers.
The blast killed three civilians, wounded nine others, and damaged a dozen shops, Khan said.
Col. Jerry O'Hara, a U.S. military spokesman, confirmed U.S. casualties as a result of the bombing, but could not give further details.
NATO said two of its soldiers died in the blast but did not provide their nationalities. U.S. soldiers serve as part of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Taliban claims responsibility
A Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the blast in a phone call to an AP reporter in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban regularly use suicide attacks against Afghan and foreign troops, but the majority of victims are civilians. There were 1,160 civilians killed in insurgency-related incidents in 2008, according to an AP casualty count — 368 by foreign and Afghan troops and 768 by the Taliban. Another 26 were caught in crossfire.
Civilian deaths at the hands of coalition troops are a major source of friction between Karzai and foreign troops here, and the latest claims threatened to worsen the tensions.
In a statement Thursday, Karzai said 17 civilians were killed during clashes between U.S.-led troops and insurgents in the eastern Laghman province on Tuesday.
Karzai blamed the "terrorists" for using civilians as human shields in their battles with foreign troops, but he also criticized international forces for engaging insurgents in Afghan villages.
The U.S. military, however, said all those killed in Tuesday's battle were militants involved with a bomb-making cell in eastern Laghman province.
"We held (a meeting) with local government officials after the operation, and all local Afghan leaders confirmed that all 32 killed in this operation were hostile militants," O'Hara, the spokesman, said.
Rules of engagement
International forces have said they recently revised rules guiding their operations against insurgents throughout the country in order to minimize civilian casualties, but have not disclosed those changes publicly for the sake of their troops' security.
Meanwhile, Australia's Defense Force said Thursday it too was investigating allegations that its troops killed or wounded civilians in central Uruzgan province during a series of battles between Taliban insurgents and NATO forces. Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said 11 civilians were killed in the fighting Sunday and Monday. NATO has said it was only able to confirm nine injured civilians.
Separately, NATO said Thursday a roadside bomb killed one of its soldiers in Kandahar province the previous day. It did not identify the soldier's nationality.