KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military is investigating the possibility that soldiers fired into a crowd of Afghans at the scene of a fatal traffic accident that set off a day of rioting this week.
"There are indications, as part of our initial investigation, that coalition soldiers did in fact use their weapons in self-defense," Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for U.S. forces here, said yesterday.
In a statement released Monday, Collins had said there were "indications that at least one coalition military vehicle fired warning shots over the crowd." He said yesterday that the initial assessment was based on news video, adding: "We're going to look at the rest of the event to see what other events might have happened."
The U.S. military reported that one person was killed in the road accident; President Hamid Karzai's office said five people died. Afghan health authorities have informed the U.S. military that about 20 people died and more than 160 were injured in the accident and the unrest that followed, Collins said.
No U.S. soldiers were injured.
"Just because coalition soldiers weren't hurt or injured doesn't mean that there wasn't an imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death to them," Collins said. "Our people are very well trained. They know how to react to situations."
About half an hour after a heavy U.S. military cargo truck rammed into Afghan vehicles in an intersection Monday, an angry crowd estimated at 300 to 500 people began throwing rocks and firing small arms at U.S. soldiers and Afghan police, Collins said.
Witnesses say the crowd was trying to prevent the troops from leaving the scene to ensure that victims were compensated and that police had time to finish investigating the accident and arresting anyone responsible. They also say some military vehicles drove over people, and crashed into shops, in their hurry to leave.
Stressing that the investigation is in early stages, Collins insisted U.S. troops had stayed on the scene to help the injured and recover the damaged truck, whose brakes had apparently failed.
"From our post-event analysis, it is strongly believed that there were agitators in the crowd who wanted to use these events for their own criminal purposes, totally counterproductive to the police and government's efforts to provide aid and assistance to the accident victims," Collins said.
A special session of Afghanistan's parliament called on the government Tuesday to prosecute U.S. soldiers responsible for the accident. The truck's driver is on the Bagram air base but not under arrest, Collins said: "We have no indications at this time that he acted inappropriately."
A preliminary investigation has determined that the accident, which caused the worst unrest since the Taliban regime's fall in 2001, occurred when a 12-vehicle U.S. military convoy heading from the Bagram base entered Kabul at 8:12 a.m. Monday.
Two minutes later, the driver of a large cargo truck carrying bridging equipment, and weighing more than 60,000 pounds, lost control of the vehicle as it came down a long hill, Collins said.
The truck was properly inspected before it left Bagram, but its brakes apparently overheated and failed as the driver tapped them to slow the vehicle down, according to preliminary results of the investigation.
"The driver, very experienced in the operation of this type of vehicle, applied the primary emergency brake," Collins said. "He took evasive action to avoid hitting pedestrians, to avoid hitting several unoccupied vehicles that were parked along the side of the road, in an effort to slow, or stop, the vehicle's movement."
But he couldn't avoid hitting about 12 vehicles with people in them as the truck passed through an intersection, Collins said.
Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.