Crash ignites Kabul riots

Violence breaks out after U.S. convoy hits civilians, fails to stop

May 30, 2006|By WESAL ZAMAN AND PAUL WATSON | WESAL ZAMAN AND PAUL WATSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In the Afghan capital's worst unrest since the fall of the Taliban five years ago, Afghan mobs fought running battles yesterday with troops and police trying to quell riots sparked when U.S. military vehicles fled the scene of a fatal accident after hitting civilians.

At least eight people were killed and more than 100 injured, most in the rioting that followed an early morning traffic accident involving a convoy of U.S. military vehicles, Afghan officials said.

Rioters attacked the offices of the United Nations and foreign aid agencies, stealing computers, books, desks and even shoes. They also set fire to numerous police check posts across Kabul, and as the mobs continued to run amok in midafternoon, a pall of smoke hung over some districts of the capital.

Protesters shouted "Death to America!" and in a local epithet, "Death to dog washers!" They condemned President Hamid Karzai and the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zaher Shah.

Karzai, in a nationally televised speech, described the rioters as agitators and "the enemy of Afghanistan," and he urged Afghans to resist their efforts to foment violence.

"You should stand up against these agitators," he said, "and not let them destroy our country again."

Afghans often complain that U.S. military convoys drive recklessly, but U.S. troops insist that they drive aggressively to avoid such threats as roadside bombs and suicide attackers.

Afghan witnesses and the U.S. military gave conflicting accounts of what set off the riots.

Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, called the accident "tragic" and "very regrettable," but he said it was apparently the result of a "mechanical failure."

As a convoy of U.S. vehicles was heading through Kabul about 8 a.m. yesterday, a large cargo truck struck as many as 12 civilian vehicles, Collins said in a statement. At least one Afghan was killed and six injured, he said.

According to Afghans, vehicles in a U.S. military convoy rammed into a dozen vehicles in the Sar-e-Kotal area, where used-car sellers operate a market on Kabul's northern edge. The convoy then sped off into Kabul. About a mile from the accident, hundreds of angry Afghans, many of them shopkeepers and taxi drivers, blocked the military vehicles in the Sarai Shamali district, witnesses said.

Shopkeeper Ghulam Rauf said he saw the American convoy of about half a dozen vehicles speeding toward a taxi that crossed in front of them.

"As the first vehicle crashed into the taxi, two other [American] vehicles started hitting other cars on the sides of the road," he said. "They destroyed all the vehicles that were standing there.

"And the soldier sitting on top was dancing and singing and shouting. Then they drove toward shops and into mobs of people standing there. They drove over them, and I saw people shouting, `Help,' because their legs were cut open as the vehicles drove onto them."

Several shops were ruined, and as Afghans tried to prevent the military vehicles from leaving, several opened fire with heavy weapons mounted on the roofs, Rauf and other witnesses said.

Witnesses said U.S. troops and Afghan security forces fired on the crowd as protesters hurled rocks and fired guns. It was not clear who fired the first rounds.

"There are indications that at least one coalition military vehicle fired warning shots over the crowd," Collins said. "We will determine the facts regarding the incident and cooperate fully with Afghan authorities."

Victims entitled to compensation will receive it, he said.

In other events yesterday, U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombed Taliban militants meeting in a remote region of southern Afghanistan, killing dozens of fighters in the latest violence to wrack the volatile region, an Afghan official said.

Five Canadian soldiers were wounded in a separate gunbattle west of Kandahar, said Maj. Mario Couture, a coalition spokesman. The Canadians were on patrol when they were ambushed by militants early yesterday, he said. One soldier was seriously injured and flown to Germany for treatment, he said.

The body of one dead militant was left behind, and up to five others were believed to have been killed, he said.

More than 50 militants were believed to have been killed in the airstrike on Kajaki district in Helmand province, although police had yet to reach the mountainous location to confirm the casualties, said provincial deputy governor, Amir Mohammed Akhunzada.

Coalition officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the airstrike.

Wesal Zeman and Paul Watson write for the Los Angeles Times.

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