Gunmen, including one believed to be an Afghan soldier, killed two NATO troops Thursday in southern Afghanistan, just hours after the top NATO commander in the country allowed some foreign advisers to return to work at government ministries.
The shootings were the latest in a series of attacks by Afghan security forces â€” or militants disguised in their uniforms â€” against Americans and other members of the international alliance. Six NATO service members have been killed in this way in less than two weeks as tensions rise over the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base.
Two U.S. military advisers were found dead of gunshot wounds to the head on Feb. 25 inside their office at the Afghan Interior Ministry. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the ministry shootings, saying they were conducted in retaliation for last week's Quran burnings, but no one has been arrested in the case.
NATO said a man in an Afghan army uniform and another in civilian clothes opened fired on coalition and Afghan soldiers, killing two foreign troops. It did not provide further details or the nationalities of the service members killed in the south, and there were conflicting reports from Afghan officials about the sequence of events.
A district chief in southern Kandahar's Zhari district said the shootings took place on a NATO base when an Afghan civilian who taught a literacy course for Afghan soldiers and lived on the base started shooting at NATO troops. Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said the shootings occurred at 3 a.m. and that NATO troops returned fire and killed the man and an Afghan soldier.
Mohammad Mohssan, an Afghan Army spokesman in Kandahar city, said the incident occurred at a base in Zhari and involved two Afghans, one of whom was a soldier. He said the two opened fire on an Afghan sentry at a security tower, then climbed it and began shooting at NATO troops. He said both were killed.
The latest incident came as the top NATO commander allowed some foreign advisers to return to work at Afghan ministries, a military spokesman said, nearly a week after hundreds of advisers were pulled out following the killing of the two American officers at the Interior Ministry.
The advisers are key to helping improve governance and prepare Afghan security forces to take on more responsibility.
More than 30 Afghans died in six days of rioting after news that a number of Qurans and other Islamic texts were thrown into burn pit on Feb. 20 at a U.S. military base north of the capital. An Afghan soldier also killed two U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan on Feb. 23 during a protest over the Quran burnings.
The head of the U.N. in Afghanistan said Thursday that the military personnel who had disposed of the Qurans should be punished. President Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials have apologized for the burnings, which they said were inadvertent.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings said Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, approved the return of selected personnel. He could not elaborate which ministries were involved, but an Afghan official said some had returned to a department setting up a government-run security force that will guard international development projects.
A NATO official said less than a dozen advisers had returned. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Western officials have said a joint investigation by NATO and Afghan officials into the burnings was nearly complete, and preliminary findings could be released within days.
The report, a military official said, might also include recommendations for disciplinary action, but those are expected to be included â€” if necessary â€” in a more detailed report that will be ready sometime next month. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still in progress.
Jan Kubic, who runs the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, told reporters that after "the profound apology there must be the second step" after the completion of the investigation. He said that step was "appropriate disciplinary action."
"Because only after such a disciplinary action the international military forces would be able to say yes, we are sincere," Kubic said.
He said it was up to the military to figure out how to solve the problem created by the Quran burnings.
"It's not us, the U.N., who desecrated the Holy Quran, it is the military and it's up to the military to decide what kind of steps they will take," Kubic said.