Afghanistan authorities play down shootout

Friday, May 23, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan authorities on Thursday played down a deadly shooting incident outside the American Embassy in Kabul in which U.S. Marines killed at least three Afghan troops, saying relations between the two nations would not be undermined.

"The relationship between Afghanistan and the United States ... has a very strong and solid basis," Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told reporters in Kabul.

"It is a partnership and neither side wants this partnership to be undermined by incidents like what happened yesterday."

U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Fernandez agreed.

"The relationship between the United States and Afghanistan ... is strong and getting stronger," Fernandez said.

It's still unclear what sparked the five-minute exchange of fire between the two sides on Wednesday.

Jalali said Afghan soldiers at a military intelligence compound were loading or unloading weapons into a vehicle across the street from the embassy. U.S. guards believed they were about to come under attack and opened fire, killing three Afghan soldiers -- including a major and a sergeant, Jalali said. Two Afghan captains were also wounded.

Another Afghan soldier died in a military hospital in Kabul on Wednesday, but it was unclear if he was among the three reported dead.

"There was no intention of the Afghan soldiers to attack the American Embassy; it was just a misunderstanding," Jalali said.

International peacekeepers have posited another version of events, saying Afghan troops may have fired on a passing car -- perhaps because it failed to stop at a checkpoint.

The Afghan soldiers' bullets were fired toward the U.S. Marine guards, who mistook it for an attack and returned fire.

The U.S. Embassy has said very little about the shootout, saying only that it regretted the loss of life and that an investigation was underway.

"Investigations are ongoing. I have nothing more to add," Fernandez said.

Jalali said the Interior Ministry was looking into the incident and arrangements would be taken so that such violence would not be repeated. He gave no details.

Wednesday's shootout came two days after the United States raised its terror alert level, warning of possible attacks on Americans around the globe.

There have been few signs of serious tension between the U.S. and its Afghan allies since American forces deployed in the country after ousting the Taliban regime in 2001. America is the primary military backer of President Hamid Karzai's government.

About 11,500 coalition soldiers, 8,500 of them Americans, are in the country to hunt down Taliban remnants, their allies, and fugitives of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Kabul is also patrolled by some 5,000 international peacekeepers.

"Afghanistan's stability depends on the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan and support from the international community," Jalali said.

"The partnership is so solid that I don't think it can be shaken by incidents like this, which was caused by a mistake, or miscalculations, miscommunications or misunderstandings," he said.

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