By RAHIM FAIEZ, Associated Press
A U.S.-led raid Sunday on a suspected militant cell killed as many as six Afghans â€” including a woman and a teenage girl â€” and spawned protests by hundreds of angry Afghans chanting “Death to Bush!”
The U.S. said four militants were among the dead, but it was the civilian deaths that infuriated the protesters, who carried five bodies to a main highway and blocked traffic with felled trees during the demonstration. The bodies of the women were entirely covered by sheets, while the men’s faces were revealed.
“Their operation was based on incorrect reports, and they carried out a cruel attack on these houses,” said local resident Akhtar Mohammad at the protest. “We are not the enemy, we are not al-Qaida. Why are they attacking us?”
Afghan officials have repeatedly pleaded with the United States and NATO to take care during operations that might harm civilians, and the latest violence is sure to deepen distrust among Afghans, whose support for international forces and the shaky U.S.-backed government is waning.
“It is extremely unfortunate that militants put others’ lives in danger by hiding among their families,” said U.S. Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman.
The protest was held on the same highway where a U.S. Marines convoy, fleeing after being hit by a suicide car bomb on March 4, fired indiscriminately on vehicles and pedestrians, killing 12 people.
Abdul Mohammad, a Nangarhar police investigator, said the operation early Sunday in the Bati Kot district left five civilians dead, including two women. The differing figures could not immediately be reconciled, and it could not be verified if the dead men were militants or not.
The protesters focused their anger on President Bush and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, as well as the governor of Nangarhar.
Acting on a tip indicating that the cell was planning three suicide car bomb attacks against coalition forces in the coming weeks, coalition and Afghan forces jointly raided the compound, the coalition statement said.
The coalition said that after being fired upon, the coalition forces returned fire, killing four militants, an adult woman and a teenage girl. Another child and teenage girl were also wounded during the gunfight and are being treated at a coalition facility.
Coalition forces found several guns and bomb-making materials, and detained one man from the compound for questioning.
The coalition said it arrested four other suspects and discovered more bomb-making materials elsewhere in the area Sunday.
Mohammad, the Nangarhar director of police criminal investigations, said the operation targeted three houses and that six people were arrested.
In the March 4 shootings, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said the Marines, after being hit by an explosives-rigged minivan, violated international humanitarian law by using excessive force when they opened fire at civilians along a 10-mile stretch of road, leaving 12 people dead.
A U.S. military commander has also determined that the Marines used excessive force and referred the case for possible criminal inquiry.
The troubled eastern provinces along the Pakistan border are known to be home to insurgents from the Taliban and other militant groups.
In neighboring Kunar province, the coalition said Sunday five militants â€” including a key organizer identified as Habib Jan â€” were killed in an operation a week ago.
A weapons cache was found along with “documents suggesting coordination with at least one international terror leader,” it said without elaborating.