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Insurgents behead 17 Afghan civilians at party

- Associated Press - Monday, August 27, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Insurgents attacked a large party in a Taliban-controlled area of southern Afghanistan and beheaded 17 people, officials said Monday.

A local government official initially said the victims were civilians at a celebration late Sunday involving music and dancing in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. The official, Neyamatullah Khan, said the Taliban killed the party-goers for flouting the extreme brand of Islam embraced by the militants.

However, provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said later that those killed were caught up in a fight between two Taliban commanders over two women, who were among the dead. Mr. Ahmadi said shooting broke out during the fight, but it was unclear whether the music and dancing triggered the violence and whether the dead were all civilians or possibly included some fighters.

All of the bodies were decapitated, but it was not clear if they had been shot first, he said.

In other violence, two American soldiers were shot and killed by one of their Afghan colleagues in the east — bringing the number of Americans killed this month by Afghan allies to 12. Afghan officials said the killings appeared to be accidental. NATO would not comment on whether the killings were intentional or accidental, but a U.S. Defense Department official said there were indications that it was an intentional killing.

The Taliban has controlled large parts of Musa Qala, a district encompassing more than 100 villages, since 2001. They enforce the same strict interpretation of Islamic law that was imposed on all of Afghanistan during Taliban rule in 1996-2001.

U.S. Marines have battled the Taliban for years in Musa Qala, but the insurgent group still wields significant power in the area as international forces across the country draw down and hand over control to Afghan forces. Helmand province, where Musa Qala is located, is one of the areas that has seen the largest reduction in U.S. troops. The U.S. started reducing forces from a peak of nearly 103,000 last year and plans to have 68,000 troops by October.

Many Afghans and international observers have expressed concerns that the Taliban will try to re-impose strict Islamic justice as international forces withdraw. Under the Taliban, all music and film was banned as un-Islamic, and women were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative as an escort.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings and said they were against Shariah law.

"The killing of innocent civilians by Taliban is an unforgivable crime," Mr. Karzai said in a statement.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi, however, rejected allegations that the Taliban were involved in the incident.

"No Talib have killed any civilians. Neither were Taliban commanders fighting each other. We don't know about this thing. Whether it happened or not, we were not involved," Mr. Ahmadi said.

The killings contradict the Taliban leadership's orders for their fighters to avoid killing ordinary Afghans, suggesting a breakdown in discipline and a further fracturing of the insurgency.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar urged his commanders earlier this month to "employ tactics that do not cause harm to the life and property of the common countrymen." The insurgents' supreme leader has issued such edicts from hiding before, perhaps trying to soften the extremist movement's image, but the order appears to have been widely ignored.

A U.N. report last month said 1,145 civilians were killed and 1,954 others were injured in the first half of the year, 80 percent of them by militants.

In fact, while the Taliban seek to soften their image, the beheadings recall the days of public executions during their rule.

There are fears that the Taliban will again control southern Afghanistan and impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law on the region as foreign troops gradually withdraw in the next two years. Nearly all foreign troops are to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the U.S.-led NATO coalition hopes that Afghan security forces will be strong enough to take control.

As the drawdown progresses, there has been a surge in attacks by Afghan forces against their allies.

A group of U.S. and Afghan soldiers came under an insurgent attack in Laghman province Monday, said Noman Hatefi, a spokesman for the Afghan army corps in eastern Afghanistan. He said the troops returned fire and took up fighting positions.

He said the two Americans were killed when an Afghan soldier fell and accidentally discharged his weapon.

"He didn't do this intentionally. But then the commander of the (Afghan) unit started shouting at him: 'What did you do? You killed two NATO soldiers!' And so he threw down his weapon and started to run," Mr. Hatefi said.

The U.S. troops already had called in air support to help with the insurgent attack, and the aircraft fired on the escaping soldier from above, killing him, Mr. Hatefi said.

Lt. Col. Hagen Messer of Germany, a NATO spokesman, confirmed that two international soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier in Laghman province, but he would not comment on whether the killing was intentional or accidental.

In Washington, a U.S. Defense Department official said the Afghan soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Americans and that this seemed to indicate that it was an intentional act. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation is under way, said he was unaware of any indications that the shooting was accidental.

Insider attacks have been a problem for the U.S.-led military coalition for years, but it recently has become a crisis. There have been at least 33 such attacks so far this year, killing 42 coalition members, mostly Americans. Last year, there were 21 attacks, killing 35; and in 2010, there were 11 attacks with 20 deaths.

The chief spokesman for NATO forces in the country said coalition forces were not pulling back from collaborating with the Afghans because of the attacks.

"We are not going to reduce the close relationship with our Afghan partners," Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz told reporters in the capital.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that he could not confirm any link between the attacker in Monday's shooting and the insurgency. In previous insider attacks, the Taliban have quickly claimed responsibility and identified the assailants.

Helmand officials also reported that 10 Afghan soldiers were killed in an attack on a checkpoint in the south, and five either were kidnapped or joined their assailants. Daoud Ahmadi, the provincial spokesman, said insurgents attacked the checkpoint in Washir district Sunday evening. Four soldiers were wounded, he said. The Afghan Defense Ministry said the checkpoint was attacked by more than 100 insurgents.

Mr. Ahmadi said the five missing soldiers left with the insurgents, but it was unclear if they were kidnapped or went voluntarily.

In Ghor province in the east, officials said three students were killed in what looked like a revenge killing by the family of a Taliban commander who died recently in an explosion. Gen. Dilawer Shah Dilawer, the provincial police chief, said it appears the commander's family believed the students or their family members were somehow involved in setting the explosive. He stressed, however, that the investigation was continuing.

Mirwais Khan reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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