May 31, 2006

US pleads self-defense in riots

By Simon Cameron-Moore

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. troops fired in self defense when a
road accident in Kabul triggered a riot, the military said on
Wednesday, as Afghan lawmakers demanded the prosecution of a
soldier driving a runaway truck that killed at least five

"Our initial investigation ... shows fire came from the
crowd, and our soldiers used their weapons to defend
themselves," Colonel Tom Collins said, giving the fullest U.S.
account so far of events on Monday that led to the worst
anti-American riots in the city since the Taliban's ouster in

Afghan officials say five people were killed by a truck
that the U.S. military maintains suffered brake failure coming
down a hill. Seven people were killed in the bloody aftermath.

But Collins, speaking at a news conference, said Afghan
ministries had put the number of dead from the accident and
riots at 20, and even two days on there was no definitive toll.

The United States and the Western-back government of
President Hamid Karzai can ill-afford the controversy with an
insurgency in the south and east passing through its bloodiest
phase since the Taliban's removal.

In the past couple of weeks alone over 350 people have been
killed, many of them in air strikes. Most of those killed were
militants, but the toll also includes dozens of police, at
least 17 civilians and four foreign troops.

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters killed at least a dozen
Afghan police and abducted up to 40 in two separate attacks in
southern Afghanistan, while U.S.-led forces launched an
offensive in Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul, officials

In southern Zabul province, where the insurgency has been
most intense, a Taliban rocket killed a senior police official
and 10 other police were killed in a Taliban assault.

And in the neighboring province of Uruzgan, 40 policemen
were abducted, according to a government official in Kabul.

A caller, claiming to be a Taliban commander, told a
Reuters journalist that a dozen police were killed, and the
fate of those kidnapped would be decided by the militants'

U.S.-led coalition troops arrested six suspected fighters
during a sweep of villages in Ghazni, according to the
governor, Sher Alam Ibrahimi, at the start of "Operation Desert


Treatment of prisoners, deaths of civilians from "friendly
fire, checkpoint shootings and the way in which U.S. convoys
hog roads have all fueled resentment toward U.S. forces, even
though it took U.S. intervention to oust the Taliban and sow
the seeds of democracy that have led to elections in the last
two years.

Lawmakers in Afghanistan's fledgling parliament issued a
call, after a special closed door session on Tuesday, for the
prosecution of the U.S. soldier at the wheel of the truck that
crashed, as well as the prosecution of people who led the

The call by the lower house, however is not binding on the
government, and the driver of the truck is back at his base
pending an investigation but is not in custody.

Compensation is being offered to victims' families, Colonel
collins said.

In the hours that followed the accident, rioters rampaged
through central Kabul. They looted shops, besieged a private
television station and burned the offices of a U.S. aid group
before reaching the gates of parliament and the U.S. embassy.

Collins said video footage clearly showed U.S. soldiers
firing rounds over the heads of a stone-throwing crowd of up to
500 people from a machinegun mounted on one of 12 vehicles in
the convoy involved in the accident.

But Collins could not say whether shots were fired from the
crowd before the machine-gunner opened up, or whether other
soldiers in the convoy fired and, if so, where they had aimed.

He said an investigation was going on into the incident,
which has damaged relations between the people of Kabul and
foreign forces in Afghanistan generally.

No U.S. personnel were wounded during the violence.

There are some 23,000 troops in the U.S.-led coalition
fighting the insurgency, while a NATO-led peacekeeping force is
being increased from 9,000 to 15,000.