Three civilians, four militants killed in airstrike in Afghanistan

Sunday, May 1, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Warplanes attacked a rebel camp in a Taliban-haunted province of central Afghanistan, killing three civilians including a child as well as four suspected militants, the U.S. military said Saturday.

In another sign of instability, protesters in the western city of Herat shouted anti-American slogans and demanded the return of an ousted regional strongman, a day after a woman and her daughter were shot dead in unrest.

The airstrike by U.S.-led coalition forces Friday came during a two-day offensive against insurgents in Uruzgan province, the U.S. military statement said.

Four militants, an Afghan woman, an Afghan man and a child were killed, the statement said. Two more children were wounded and taken to a U.S. base for treatment, it said.

Afghan officials and human rights groups have complained repeatedly about civilian casualties in American-led military operations, saying heavy-handed tactics could stoke sympathy for militants who have maintained a stubborn insurgency since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

American commanders insist they try to avoid hurting civilians and accuse militants of using villagers and passers-by for protection.

Among recent incidents involving civilian casualties was a March 22 firefight in Paktika province which left seven people dead, including two children and a woman. A suspected militant and two other insurgents were also killed.

The military said Friday's attack was part of a two-day assault against insurgents in Uruzgan, a mountainous province which intense U.S. and Afghan military operations have failed to pacify. An American soldier was shot dead in the province on Tuesday when his patrol was ambushed near Deh Rawood, 280 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul.

In another challenge to U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai's feeble grip on the country, demonstrators marched through Herat Saturday, a day after bloodshed in the city marred the 13th anniversary celebrations of the fall of Afghanistan's last communist government.

Police said a soldier accidentally opened fire on Friday evening when a crowd surged toward a city park. However, other officials and witnesses said shooting broke out during a row between troops and police.

The Ministry of Defense said a woman and her daughter were killed. Police said eight more people were hurt in the ensuing stampede, though at least two patients at a local hospital said they had suffered gunshot wounds.

Officials said the soldier was arrested and that high-ranking officials from Kabul would investigate.

Still, hundreds of people marched from the home of former governor Ismail Khan to the office of his successor, Sayed Mohammed Khairkhwa on Saturday morning. The demonstrators, who carried portraits of Khan, chanted "Down with America" and called for Khan's return.

Khairkhwa said police fired into the air to force the crowds back from his residence, and that the protesters pelted a government building and an army recruitment center with rocks, breaking several windows.

U.N. staff and foreign relief workers were ordered to stay at home or take refuge in bunkers on U.N. compounds.

The violence was the worst in Herat since September last year, when Khan's ouster prompted street riots in which three people died and mobs ransacked the U.N. offices.

Khan, now a minister in Karzai's Cabinet, was a veteran leader of mujahedeen rebels who fought occupying Soviet troops in the 1980s and took power in Kabul in 1992, before plunging the country into civil war.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had pressed for the removal of Khan, whom the central government accused of withholding customs revenue from the nearby Iranian border and whom the U.N. accused of holding up disarmament.

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