String of Afghan deaths cause outrage
On a trip to the market, Haji Lawania says he drove his gray SUV into a hail of US gunfire that shattered his windshield and killed his father, nephew and a village elder.
The three companions, who died Sunday in the aftermath of a suicide bombing in eastern Nangarhar province, are among 40 civilians whose deaths this year could be attributed to NATO or US action, according to an Associated Press tally based on figures from military and Afghan officials.
The high number of casualties and fresh accusations that Marines fired on civilians along miles of highway have sparked rage everywhere from dusty streets to the halls of Parliament, threatening to turn the support of wavering Afghans against U.S. and NATO troops and, more ominously, President Hamid Karzai's fledgling Western-backed government.
NATO spokesman Col Tom Collins said civilian casualties are caused "overwhelmingly" because militants operate in populated areas, hiding in civilian homes after attacks and setting off suicide bombs in public.
But he acknowledged the harm the deaths do to the international mission's image.
"It would seem to me that the enemy benefits when (NATO) forces take what we consider appropriate action against threatening behavior," Collins said.
"Nonetheless, the enemy is able to gain from that because there is this perception that we're shooting people, civilians."
Karzai has pleaded repeatedly for Western troops to operate with care, but the long list of civilian deaths since 2001 seems only to grow.
The US-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100 Afghan civilians died as a result of NATO and coalition assaults in 2006.
In three separate incidents Sunday and Monday, Afghan witnesses and officials said US military action may have killed up to 20 civilians -- up to 10 shot by Marines after the suicide bombing, nine killed in an airstrike after Taliban fighters sought refuge in a home, and one shot and killed after driving too close to a convoy.
At the site of the suicide bombing and gunfire in Nangarhar province, police estimated that 4,000 Afghans staged an angry but peaceful demonstration Tuesday. One sign read: "Killer Bush! Stop the Killing of Afghans. Down with America."
"Afghan civilians are angry about the security situation today," said John Sifton, a researcher on terrorism for Human Rights Watch. "All parties need to work harder to ensure that the conflict doesn't fall heavy on civilians."
Lawmakers in Afghanistan's upper house of Parliament expressed outrage Tuesday at the recent killings, and lawmaker Mohammad Hassan Otak said they would summon the NATO commander, the defence and interior ministers and a UN representative to address the matter.
"If it happens again, we will not sit by quietly," Otak said. "This kind of action ruins the dignity of the government, and if it is repeated the coalition will lose the trust of the Afghan people, and they may not sit by quietly either."
A senior Afghan official said the government has repeatedly told the US and NATO that civilians must not be harmed during operations, and that top generals have always agreed with those demands.
"To what extent that is followed through down the chain of command I can't say," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The militant attacks are specifically designed to prove an overreaction that proves counterproductive, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
"The suicide attacks, I believe, are calculated to raise tensions _ place troops in the desperate life or death situations that give rise to random fire," he said.
Afghan witnesses in Nangarhar province say Marines opened fire along a six-mile stretch of road, wounding 34 Afghans, including Lawania, in addition to the 10 killed.
"We were about to turn onto the main road when we heard the suicide explosion," Lawania, 45, said by telephone from the hospital.
"Suddenly on the main road I saw the Humvees. They opened fire on us even though we'd stopped on the side road. "Maybe the Americans thought we were a second suicide attacker, so they opened fire. Otherwise there's no reason to shoot up civilian cars."
The US-led coalition says militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the casualties, but no Afghan officials or witnesses have yet corroborated that account.
"Did I see any militants? If you want to ask me this question, you must trust me first," said Lawania, who may lose his right hand because of the bullet injury. "No single shot was fired from our village or vehicle toward the Americans."
Lawania's SUV took about 100 bullets. A US soldier made four Afghan journalists -- including two AP cameramen -- erase photos and videos of the car.
Still, new revelations about an attack later Sunday night in Kapisa province suggest that militants are indeed using civilian homes for cover.
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