U.S. soldiers involved in crash may have fired into rioting crowd

Thursday, June 1, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday that American soldiers used their guns in self-defense after rioting Afghans opened fire during a melee that broke out after a deadly road crash.

President Bush spoke with the Afghan leader and pledged a full investigation into Kabul's worst unrest since the Taliban's downfall. The anti-foreigner riots were sparked by an accident Monday in which a U.S. truck plowed into a line of cars, killing up to five Afghans.

Col. Tom Collins, the military spokesman, said the driver of the truck was not suspected of any wrongdoing and had not been arrested. He said the truck's brakes were believed to have overheated and failed.

However, he said the military was investigating whether the troops involved in the crash fired their guns into a group of violent demonstrators or over their heads. He said some of the rioters who were throwing stones at the U.S. troops also had weapons and were shooting at them.

"Our initial investigation ... shows that fire came from the crowd, and our soldiers used their weapons to defend themselves," he said. Asked if this meant that they fired into or over the crowd, Collins said, "Our investigation is still looking into this."

The New York Times, on its Web site Wednesday, quoted the chief of highway police in Kabul, Gen. Amanullah Gozar, as saying U.S. soldiers fired into the crowd, killing four people.

Gozar, who the Times reported was an eyewitness, said the soldiers were in the last vehicle in a U.S. army convoy involved in the crash.

The Afghan parliament on Tuesday demanded prosecution of U.S. soldiers involved in the truck accident. "Those responsible for the accident on Monday should be handed over to Afghan legal authorities," Saleh Mohammed Saljuqi, an assistant to the parliamentary speaker, cited the motion as saying.

It seems unlikely the parliamentary motion would lead to any action. U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan come under American military jurisdiction, although foreigners working on civilian projects are generally subject to Afghan law.

In the violence that immediately followed the crash, rampaging mobs looted stores and burned some government buildings and offices of international organizations. Up to 20 Afghans were killed and more than 160 wounded, mostly from gunshots. The situation has since calmed, but Kabul remains under a night curfew.

The unrest, seemingly fueled by widespread poverty and unemployment, has added to President Hamid Karzai's woes as militant supporters of the Taliban regime ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 step up attacks and fighting grips volatile southern and eastern regions of the country.

On Wednesday, Bush spoke with Karzai and pledged a comprehensive inquiry into the riots, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

"They talked about recent developments and the need to continue with police reform and capacity building," Snow said. "The president expressed sympathy for those killed and injured in Kabul on Monday and pledged a full investigation."

The unrest has shaken confidence in authorities' control of the capital. Kabul is patrolled by NATO peacekeepers and is regarded as relatively secure -- certainly in comparison to the lawless south, which is wracked by the fiercest clashes in four years.

Early Wednesday, hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters besieged the police headquarters in Chora, a remote town in Uruzgan province, running off 100 police inside and occupying the compound for hours before slipping away again, said Rozi Khan, the regional police chief.

They left behind scorched police vehicles and buildings, he said, adding that police were not returning immediately, fearing an ambush.

The attack underscored the tenuous grip Karzai's government has on the countryside, particularly in the Taliban's former southern heartland.

Uruzgan lies on that region's northern fringes and hundreds of Dutch forces are set to deploy to the province later this year as part of an expansion of NATO forces into the south.

Afghanistan's post-Taliban security forces of 58,000 police and 38,000 soldiers are teaming up with more than 30,000 U.S.-led coalition and NATO troops aiming to calm the country. But security has worsened since the rebels stepped up attacks this spring. In the past two weeks alone, more than 400 people, mostly militants, have been killed in fighting.

In other violence Wednesday, insurgents killed a provincial deputy police chief and wounded three of his officers by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at their vehicle in southern Zabul province, local government spokesman Ali Khail said.

Associated Press writers Daniel Cooney and Edward Harris in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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