Five British soldiers fatally shot by Afghan policeman

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 5, 2009

KABUL -- Five British soldiers were shot and killed Tuesday by an Afghan policeman while they were working together in southern Afghanistan, British officials said.

The shooting occurred in the Nad e-Ali district of Helmand province, one of the most violent areas of the country. The British soldiers were working with Afghan National Police at a checkpoint when one policeman opened fire, military officials said.

The gunfire wounded six other British soldiers and two Afghan policemen. Officials said the shooter fled the scene, but it was unclear whether he was arrested later.

Deaths among British troops, the second-largest contingent in Afghanistan after the U.S. military, have risen in recent months, mirroring the growing rate of American fatalities. At least 92 British soldiers have died this year, the deadliest of the war. Tuesday's attack follows a shooting a month ago in which an Afghan police officer killed two U.S. soldiers while they were patrolling together.

The ongoing violence comes amid the conclusion of Afghanistan's troubled presidential election. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who withdrew this week from a runoff vote, said Wednesday that he had no interest in joining President Hamid Karzai's second-term cabinet, which will be chosen in coming weeks.

Abdullah called the decision by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to award Karzai a victory without holding the runoff "illegal" but made clear he would not challenge the decision. He said he will continue his efforts to bring "change and hope" from outside the administration.

"In this sort of environment, I would rather act like a pressure group in order to bring changes and reform in the system," he said.

The deaths of the British soldiers have raised fears about the extent of insurgent infiltration in the Afghan security forces, especially as the U.S. and Afghan governments rush to increase the size of both the Afghan army and police force.

Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said in a statement that Tuesday's shooting appeared "to be an isolated incident" and would be investigated by both Afghan and international officials. "We are deeply saddened for the loss of our ISAF partners and we extend our prayers to their families and those injured in this senseless attack," Atmar said, using the abbreviation for the International Security Assistance Force.

Afghanistan's defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, said in an interview this week that the army has been "very watchful because we do have the reports that [insurgents] are really trying to infiltrate."

He said the army is trying to implement a biometric system that would collect such information as fingerprints and retinal scans to build a database of all recruits. The U.S. military set up similar systems for Iraqi security forces.

Many consider the Afghan police more susceptible to insurgent infiltration than the army. Wardak said there have been "very few cases" in which insurgents have been caught within the army.

"As far as the army's concerned, we have been relatively successful. It has not been a major problem up to now," he said.

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