President Hamid Karzai on Sunday condemned a U.S. operation he says killed 16 Afghan civilians, while thousands of villagers denounced the American military during an angry demonstration, Reuters reported.
Karzai said the killing of innocent Afghans "is strengthening the terrorists."
The issue of civilian casualties is sensitive in Afghanistan and has eroded public support for Karzai's government and the foreign troops backing it. It has also caused a rift between Karzai and his Western allies more than seven years on since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban's government.
The operation causing the latest controversy happened this week in eastern Laghman province. The U.S. military said on Saturday that troops, backed by air support, had killed 15 militants in an overnight operation.
Karzai also announced that his Ministry of Defense sent to Washington a draft technical agreement — also sent to NATO headquarters — that seeks to give Afghanistan more oversight over U.S. military operations.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said on Saturday it had no reports of civilian deaths as of that point but would investigate if it received such allegations. The military could not be reached immediately for comment on Sunday.
Protests in heavy rain
Chanting slogans against Karzai and the United States, thousands of people took part in the protest in the town of Mehtar Lam, Laghman province, despite heavy rain.
"If the foreign troops do not put an end to their operations, we will launch jihad," said Malik Hazrat, a protest leader.
The provincial governor tried to calm the demonstrators and invited them for talks with representatives of the U.S.-led troops. But some protesters threw stones at him and he stopped his speech.
There was no report of injuries and by midday the protest had simmered down.
Nearly 700 civilians were killed in operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants until October last year, according to a national human rights body based on a U.N. estimate.
Karzai, who has repeatedly urged foreign troops to coordinate operations with his government, last week termed civilian deaths as a main source of Afghanistan's instability.