By Joshua Partlow
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A18
KABUL -- Mistaking each other for the enemy, U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers battled in the morning darkness Saturday in a shootout that left at least four Afghan soldiers dead and prompted the Defense Ministry to call for the perpetrators to be punished.
The killings came a day after an interpreter working with U.S. forces killed two American service members at a military base in the same district of Wardak province, according to U.S. military officials. An American soldier subsequently shot and killed the interpreter.
The U.S. military has made partnering with Afghan security forces a top priority in the fight against the Taliban, and such incidents could sow tension in the relationship.
The fighting Saturday began at 3 a.m. when a joint patrol of Afghan and coalition forces came under fire, according to statements from the NATO-led coalition and the Afghan military. After returning fire and calling in an aircraft attack, coalition forces realized that the initial shots had come from an Afghan National Army outpost.
The Defense Ministry condemned the friendly fire incident, which it said also wounded several soldiers.
"After the investigation is completed, the Defense Ministry wants to bring those responsible to justice," the ministry statement said.
A spokesman for the provincial government, Shahidullah Shahid, said U.S. Special Forces soldiers had completed an operation with Afghan troops, detained suspected insurgents and were on their way back to the base when the shooting started.
"They thought they were insurgents and opened fire on each other," he said. "It was all a misunderstanding."
The governor of Wardak, Haleem Fedai, sent a delegation to the scene Saturday to collect information about the fighting. "There is confusion about what happened there," he said in a telephone interview. "Let's wait until we have all the final findings."
The coalition forces' statement called the attack a "regrettable incident."
"We work extremely hard to coordinate and synchronize our operations," Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said in the statement.
There have been other such incidents in Afghanistan. In November, eight Afghans, including four soldiers, were killed when fighting broke out as U.S. soldiers searched for a paratrooper who had gone missing in a river in Badghis province. Afghan officials attributed several of those deaths to an errant NATO airstrike.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.