14 civilian deaths raise Afghan tensions

U.S., Interior Ministry say men fired on U.S. forces

president says they were innocent road guards

November 11, 2008|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

Tensions between Western forces and the Afghan government flared anew yesterday when President Hamid Karzai and a provincial governor accused the U.S.-led coalition of killing 14 Afghans guarding a road construction project.

Karzai has demanded repeatedly that Western troops take urgent measures to avoid killing and injuring Afghan civilians. Recent high-profile instances of civilian casualties have inflamed public sentiment not only against foreign forces in Afghanistan but against the U.S.-backed government.

However, the Interior Ministry said in a separate statement that the 14 men had fired on coalition forces in Khowst province near the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military and the Interior Ministry said in a joint statement that the incident, which occurred Sunday night, was being investigated.

Last week, Karzai met the news that Barack Obama had won the U.S. election with a demand that he put an end to civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

"Despite the Afghan government's constant requests to NATO and coalition forces to prevent airstrikes that cause the death of innocent people and civilians, such an incident has happened again," Karzai's office said in a statement.

The statement from the Interior Ministry and the U.S. military described the 14 dead as "armed men." It said they opened fire after their vehicles were ordered to halt, and the coalition troops "returned fire with rifles and helicopter gunfire."

The governor of Khowst, Arsallah Jamal, said he believed the killings stemmed from a case of mistaken identity. "I know they were not Taliban militants," he said.

Road construction projects in Afghanistan, which are almost always funded by foreign donors, require round-the-clock protection by private security guards or face certain attack by insurgents. Taliban militants consider such projects as tantamount to collaborating with Western interests.

The problem is particularly acute in areas such as Khowst that are highly vulnerable to the infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan.

Insurgents have sunk deep roots in Pakistan's tribal areas abutting Afghanistan, and this has led to serious problems not only with cross-border infiltration but also with attacks on supply shipments headed to Western forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan. In the largest hijacking of Western supplies in recent memory, authorities in Pakistan said that at least 13 trucks carrying military supplies through the Khyber Pass were commandeered yesterday.

Local officials said dozens of insurgents took part in the hijackings along a 20-mile stretch of road on the Pakistani side of the frontier. Reports suggested that the Pakistani military and local police were slow to respond, allowing the militants to hide the goods before troops arrived.

The hijackers were thought to be affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban. Mehsud has been accused by Pakistani authorities of masterminding the assassination in December of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

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