Violence spreads through Kabul after traffic wreck


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Many Afghans welcome the help of U.S. and other foreign troops in trying to bring security after years of conflict. But there is still a strong undercurrent of resentment toward the outsiders, and the anger has been boiling over into violence.

First it was allegations that American interregators desecrated Islam’s holy book. Then European newspapers printed caricatures of Muslims’ revered prophet. On Monday, it was a traffic accident involving a U.S. military truck in Kabul.

After the truck smashed into Afghan vehicles, mobs went on an anti-foreigner rampage across the capital, engaging in the worst rioting since the Taliban’s ouster more than four years ago. At least eight people died and 107 were injured before Kabul’s streets calmed.

Chanting “Death to America!” rioters stoned the U.S. convoy involved in the accident then headed to the center of town, ransacking offices of international aid groups and searching for foreigners in a display of rising resentment over civilian deaths in the war against insurgents.

Gunfire, at times intense, rang out across Kabul as hundreds of young men looted shops and set fire to police cars and station houses. Some people said U.S. and Afghan troops fired on the crowds. Officials said they couldn’t say whether that happened.

The U.S.-backed Afghan government decreed a nighttime curfew and the city quieted before sunset. Yousuf Stanezai, an Interior Ministry spokesman, warned that anyone found outside between 10 p.m and 4 a.m. would suffer “serious measures.”

President Hamzid Karzai went on television Monday night to decry the outburst, branding the rioters as troublemakers who should be resisted and linking their violence to the long years of conflict that wrecked Afghanistan.

“We will recognize as the enemy of Afghanistan these people who do these things,” Karzai said. “You should stand up against these agitators and not let them to destroy our country again.”

Patience with the 23,000 U.S. soldiers and other foreign troops in Afghanistan is fraying over recent deaths of civilians, including at least 16 people killed by an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in a village last week.

The civilian deaths have come during some of the fiercest fighting since a U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban religious militia from power at the end of 2001, after the regime refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and close al-Qaida camps following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Much of the bloodshed is in the south, where officials reported a battle Monday killed six militants and wounded five Canadian soldiers.

Elsewhere, warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition bombed a suspected Taliban meeting late Sunday and dozens of militants were reported killed, Afghan authorities said.

While most Afghans support the presence of foreign troops to stabilize a country devastated by a quarter century of war and civil conflict, many also harbor resentment at the outsiders.

Those feelings have surfaced with increasing regularity in the past year, during violent protests over allegations the Quran was desecrated at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and the publication in European newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

“We don’t want Americans in our country. They don’t care about poor people. They killed innocent people today and this is not the first time,” said Abdul Shakoor, a 28-year-old who joined in the protests after Monday’s traffic accident. “They do it all the time and in the end they say it was a mistake. It’s not acceptable to us anymore.”

The U.S. military expressed regret for the crash, which it said occurred when a mechanical malfunction sent a large cargo truck careening into about a dozen vehicles at an intersection. The military was investigating the incident.

The U.S.-led coalition said at least one person was killed and six injured in the crash, while Afghan authorities gave higher but differing tolls. A statement from Karzai’s office said five died in the accident. Police said three were killed and 16 were injured.

“This was a tragic incident and we deeply regret any deaths or injuries resulting from this incident,” a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Thomas Collins, said in a statement.

A Kabul police chief, Sher Shah Usafi, said another person was killed when U.S. troops fired into a crowd of stone-throwing protesters soon after the crash. U.S. military officials said they couldn’t confirm that.

An Associated Press reporter saw Afghan security forces fire at protesters, wounding at least three people.

Abdullah Fahim, a Health Ministry spokesman, said eight bodies were delivered to hospitals in Kabul and 107 Afghans were treated for injuries. He had no details on how the casualties occurred, and it wasn’t immediately clear if the toll included people from the traffic accident.

Fahim said there were no foreigners among the dead or wounded.

The rioting spread from the accident site in northern Kabul to the center of the city, where hundreds of Afghan soldiers and NATO peacekeepers in tanks deployed.

Chanting protesters marched on the presidential palace and rioters smashed police guard boxes, set fire to police cars and ransacked buildings, including the compound of the aid group CARE International.

An AP reporter saw demonstrators pull a man who appeared to be a Westerner from a civilian vehicle and beat him. The man escaped and ran to a line of police, who fired gunshots over the heads of the demonstrators.

Some protesters said they were targeting non-Afghans.

“Today’s demonstration is because Americans killed innocent people. We will not stop until foreigners leave the city. We are looking for foreigners to kill,” said one protester, Gulam Ghaus.

AP reporters heard several 20-second bursts of heavy automatic gunfire coming from the direction of the U.S. Embassy. It subsided but shots were then heard sporadically before the city calmed.

Staff at the U.S. Embassy were moved to a secure location within the heavily fortified compound, said Chris Harris, an embassy spokesman. He had no information on the gunfire heard near the mission.

A purported Taliban spokesman said the riots showed Americans don’t support Afghanistan.

“Recent attacks on civilians in southern Afghanistan and today’s firing on people in Kabul show that Americans consider the whole Afghan nation as their enemies,” said Mohammed Hanif, who contacted an AP reporter in Pakistan by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.

Hanif claims to speak for the hard-line militia but his links to its leadership are unclear.

Associated Press writers Edward Harris, Daniel Cooney and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

AP-ES-05-29-06 1618EDT