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.
Rioters tried to reach Karzai's palace but were stopped by police. They managed to destroy a giant portrait of him that covers an entire wall of the downtown municipal building.
At the offices of Ariana television, one of two new private stations here, broadcasters appealed on the air for help as sounds of banging and shouting outside could be heard. They pleaded repeatedly with the Interior Ministry to send troops to save their building, but the attackers eventually left before help arrived.
All major open-air markets in the city shut down as the riots spread. Schools were let out at midmorning and many teenage boys with book bags joined in the looting and destruction, witnesses said. The streets were virtually deserted until late afternoon.
The Defense Ministry broadcast repeated statements asking people to remain calm and warning that security forces would respond aggressively to looting and do whatever was necessary to protect civilians.
The speaker of parliament, who is a leading rival of Karzai, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court also called for calm and for an investigation into the day's events. Two other legislators went to the scene of the worst violence and appealed to people to go home.
The rioters tried to break into numerous buildings, including banks, guesthouses and aid agencies. In several places they exchanged fire with police and security guards, witnesses said. On one private videotape of a street incident, a guard could be heard shouting in the Dari language, "I am a Muslim. I am not an infidel. I am not an American. Please let me go."
Among the worst-damaged buildings were the offices of CARE International in the Qalaifatullah district, which was badly burned and ransacked, with computers and other office equipment stolen or smashed. At midafternoon, firefighters were still putting out the blaze and office debris covered the street outside.
Another high-profile target was the Serena Hotel, a recently opened luxury hotel that the government hoped would attract foreign visitors and investors. After the rioters passed, every large display window in the elegant building was riddled with hundreds of bullet holes.
Karzai, speaking on national television Monday night, condemned "opportunists" for exploiting a simple traffic accident and said people responsible for the violence would be sought and treated severely. "Accidents happen all over the world," he said. "This is not a reason to fight or destroy. Those who have done this are the enemies of Afghanistan."