Afghans burned tires and chanted "Death to America" after U.S. troops fired on a civilian bus near Kandahar, killing four people and wounding more than a dozen. Afghanistan's president accused NATO of violating its commitment to safeguard civilian lives.
The attack Monday enraged Afghan officials and the public in Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, and dealt a fresh blow to U.S. and NATO efforts to win popular support for a coming offensive to drive the insurgents from the biggest city in the south. NATO expressed regret for the loss of civilian lives and said it was investigating.
Nearly 200 Afghans blocked highway where the shooting occurred, burning tires, firing weapons and chanting "Death to America" and other slogans. They also called for the ouster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Kandahar native who has been appealing for the people here to support the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban.
"The Americans are constantly killing our civilians and the government is not demanding an explanation," protester Mohammad Razaq said. "We demand justice from the Karzai government and the punishment of those soldiers responsible."
There were conflicting accounts of the shooting, which took place before dawn in the Taliban-infiltrated Zhari district along the main highway linking Kandahar with the western provinces of Helmand and Nimroz.
NATO said the bus approached a slow-moving military patrol from the rear at a high speed. Troops opened fire after the driver ignored flares and other warnings — including flashlights and hand signals — to slow down, NATO said in a statement. It confirmed four people were killed, adding the alliance "deeply regrets the tragic loss of life."
The alliance statement did not identify the soldiers' nationality, but witnesses and local Afghan officials said they were Americans. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to create problems with the NATO command.
One of the survivors, Rozi Mohammad, told The Associated Press at Kandahar hospital that the bus had just left a terminal when it pulled over to the side of the road to allow an American convoy to pass. Shooting broke out as the third or fourth American vehicle passed by, he said.
"They just suddenly opened fire. I don't know why. We had been stopped and after that I don't know what happened," said Mohammad, his left eye swollen shut and his beard and clothing matted with blood.
Karzai, who has often criticized the NATO force for endangering civilians, condemned the attack, adding that "this shooting involving a civilian bus violates NATO's commitment to safeguard civilian life."
Kandahar, a city of about a half million people, is nominally under government control, but the Taliban have stepped up infiltration, staging attacks and intimidating inhabitants.
Three suicide bombers attacked an Afghan intelligence compound in the city Monday, wounding 10 people, officials said. One of the bombers was captured, they added.
Nevertheless, much of the public anger was directed Monday against foreign forces as word of the pre-dawn shooting swept the city.
"These foreigners have their enemies, but killing Afghans is not the answer," said Abdul Hadi, who sells homemade herbal remedies in a public market. He said international forces should publish a schedule of their patrols so Afghans can keep out of the way.
"Better yet, I would like to see them leave Afghanistan," he added.
The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued strict guidelines last year limiting the use of force in an effort to reduce civilian casualties and curb public anger.
At least 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting last year, an increase of 14 percent from 2008, according to the United Nations. But the U.N. found that the percentage of civilian deaths attributed to NATO and Afghan government forces had dropped. About two-thirds of the civilian deaths were a result of actions initiated by the insurgents, including ambushes, assassinations and roadside bombs.
Nevertheless, civilian deaths remain a source of friction between the Afghans and the international forces.
Earlier this month, NATO confirmed its forces were responsible for the deaths of five people, including three women, killed Feb. 12 in Gardez, south of Kabul.
An Afghan government report said U.S. Special Forces attacked the wrong target and sought to cover up the mistake by digging bullets out of bodies, according to Afghan investigators who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, Slobodan Lekic and Christopher Bodeen contributed to this story from Kabul.