Accident Sparks Riot in Afghan Capital

A U.S. military vehicle is the target of stones after a truck in a U.S. convoy entering Kabul crashed, killing one person.
A U.S. military vehicle is the target of stones after a truck in a U.S. convoy entering Kabul crashed, killing one person. (By Fraidoon Pooyaa -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 29 -- The Afghan capital erupted Monday in the worst street violence since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, following a fatal traffic accident involving a U.S. military truck. Mobs of men and boys, many of them shouting slogans against the government and United States, set fires, attacked buildings and clashed with police for about seven hours.

Hotel windows were raked with gunfire, a foreign aid agency was torched and looted, and numerous police posts were destroyed. Some rioters brandished AK-47 assault rifles; gunfire sounded throughout the city and clouds of black smoke wafted in the air. Dozens of vehicles were smashed and burned.

The violence was fed by rumors that U.S. troops had shot and killed civilians, which U.S. military spokesmen denied.

On Monday night, authorities imposed the first curfew in four years as the violence tailed off. President Hamid Karzai went on national television to condemn the rioters as "enemies of Afghanistan." Various news and official reports put the death toll as high as 20.

The riots exposed the bitter resentment that many Afghans harbor toward the U.S.-led military forces that have been stationed here since the Taliban was driven from power. It also reflected the deep ambivalence many Afghan Muslims feel toward the growing Western influence here that includes high fashion and fast-food shops, sprawling aid compounds and even rap music.

The public mood has also been tense since a U.S. airstrike killed at least 16 civilians last week in a village in southern Afghanistan, the scene of heightened fighting this spring. Afghan and U.S. officials blamed Taliban insurgents who had taken shelter in village compounds and then fired at U.S.-led forces.

More fighting was reported in the south on Monday. Afghan and foreign military officials said about 50 Taliban guerrillas were killed in a U.S.-led air attack in Helmand province, the Reuters news service reported. Afghan officials said the strike targeted a mosque where the men had gathered; a Canadian spokesman characterized the site as a compound and said it was hit by two 500-pound bombs.

The violence in Kabul disheartened many Afghans. "Today has set us back 10 years," said a distraught Afghan man who works for the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led contingent that patrols the capital. "We have been working so hard to build something here. Now the foreigners will all go away and take their money with them."

The accident that precipitated the rioting occurred about 8 a.m. as a U.S. military convoy was entering the capital on a steep downhill boulevard toward the Khair Khona district, a U.S. military spokesman said. He said the brakes of a large cargo truck failed and it crashed into 12 civilian vehicles, killing one person and injuring at least six.

The spokesman, Maj. Matt Hackathorn, said that an angry crowd converged on the scene and threw stones, and that Afghan police tried to push the crowd back to allow U.S. military personnel to leave. He said U.S. forces fired into the air "as a show of force" but no shots were fired into the crowd.

As word of the accident spread across the city, people shouted that U.S. soldiers had shot and killed many civilians. That helped draw hundreds of men and boys into the roaming mobs. On the evening news, two TV stations showed crowds of people ducking and running while U.S. military vehicles drove by amid the sound of gunfire.

Witnesses said clusters of 200 to 300 men and boys roamed the streets all morning carrying heavy sticks. Some of the leaders carried banners saying "God is Great." Others carried posters of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the anti-Soviet guerrilla leader who was assassinated in 2001. Shouts of "Down with Karzai" and "Down with Bush" were heard.

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