Marines Open Fire After Afghan Ambush

A weeping man in eastern Afghanistan shouts anti-American slogans after violence that followed a bomb attack on a U.S. convoy. Protesters blocked a main road.
A weeping man in eastern Afghanistan shouts anti-American slogans after violence that followed a bomb attack on a U.S. convoy. Protesters blocked a main road. (By Rahmat Gul -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 5, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 4 -- At least eight Afghan civilians were killed Sunday in eastern Afghanistan when U.S. Marines traveling in a convoy were hit by a car bomb and responded by firing in a way that some witnesses called reckless.

The incident, which the U.S. military said resulted from a "complex ambush," was followed by angry demonstrations in which hundreds of Afghans took to the streets, many chanting anti-government and anti-American slogans.

According to Afghan and U.S. accounts, the Marine convoy was struck by a van packed with explosives as it traveled along a roadway connecting the eastern city of Jalalabad to the Pakistani border, in the district of Mohmand Dara. The portion of the road where the explosion occurred is flanked by shops and was crowded at the time of the blast.

Immediately afterward, the convoy was attacked by "small-arms fire from several directions," said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman. "The coalition forces returned fire in self-defense. It's unclear whether the casualties were from the car bomb blast or from the small-arms fire."

The Associated Press quoted several wounded Afghans as saying that the Marines fired indiscriminately as they fled the scene.

"They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway," Tur Gul, 38, told the AP. Gul was standing on the roadside near a gas station and was shot twice in his right hand. "They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot."

The AP also quoted an Afghan police official who supported the civilian accounts.

Accetta said that the allegations would be investigated but that "at this point we don't have any information that there was any wrongdoing by the coalition forces."

Noor Agha Zuwak, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the roadway was shut down for two hours by the crowds of protesters that formed after the incident. They were shouting "Down with the U.S.!" he said, and "Down with Karzai!" a reference to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The U.S. military at one point said 16 civilians were killed but later changed that estimate to eight. An official at a local hospital said late Sunday that 14 people had died. The military said 35 people were wounded, among them a coalition service member.

Baz Mohammed Shirzad, deputy director of the hospital where the wounded were treated, said doctors saw both bullet and shrapnel injuries. He said four patients were in critical condition Sunday night, but others were lucid enough to talk about what they saw. "An explosion took place, then firing took place. After that, they don't know what happened," he said.

Accetta said the anger aimed at the foreign troops following the incident was misdirected. "It should have been directed against the extremist forces who initiated this attack in a crowded area when they knew there would be civilian casualties," he said.

The incident is the latest to spark public outrage over the perception that foreign troops are not taking enough precautions to avoid civilian casualties. Last May, for instance, a U.S. military cargo truck lost control and struck 12 vehicles, killing one person and injuring six. A riot ensued in Kabul, the capital, and 20 people died, 160 were injured and dozens of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The United States has 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, 15,000 of whom are under NATO command. The incident Sunday involved Marine Special Forces who are not part of the NATO mission.

Also Sunday, the NATO-led force said that two of its soldiers were killed Saturday during a firefight in southern Afghanistan. Officials later said the soldiers were British.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.

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