- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

BARIKAW, Afghanistan — Insurgents struck a convoy of Marines with an explosives-rigged minivan and followed up with a fusillade from the roadside, U.S. officials said yesterday.

As many as 10 people were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made a frenzied escape, and injured Afghans said many were killed by Americans who fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.

U.S. officials said militants’ gunfire may have killed or injured civilians, but Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry and wounded Afghans said most of the bullets were American. Hundreds of angry Afghans protested near the blast site, denouncing the U.S. presence.

As the Americans fled, they treated every car and person along the busy highway as a potential attacker, said Mohammed Khan Katawazi, the district chief of Shinwar in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

“I saw them turning and firing in this direction, then turning and firing in that direction,” Ahmed Najib, a 23-year-old hit by a bullet in his right shoulder, said of the U.S. forces. “I even saw a farmer shot by the Americans.”

Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said gunmen may have fired on U.S. forces at multiple points during the escape. He said it was not yet clear how the casualties happened, though he left open the possibility that U.S. forces had shot civilians.

“It’s not entirely clear right now if the people killed or wounded by gunfire were killed or wounded by coalition forces’ gunfire or enemy attackers’ gunfire,” he said.

The accusation that U.S. forces killed or wounded so many Afghans was likely to cause an uproar in a country that has seen an untold number of civilians killed by international forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. A high-level delegation was appointed to investigate.

President Hamid Karzai has pleaded repeatedly for Western troops not to harm civilians, and in December wept during a speech lamenting civilian deaths at the hands of foreign forces.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100 Afghan civilians died as a result of NATO and coalition assaults in 2006. An AP tally, based on reports from Afghan, NATO and coalition officials, puts the overall civilian death toll in 2006 at 834, most from militants’ attacks.

Nine witnesses — including five Afghans recuperating from bullet wounds in the hospital — said in interviews that U.S. forces fired indiscriminately along at least a six-mile stretch of one of eastern Afghanistan’s busiest highways — a route often filled not only with cars and trucks, but Afghans on foot and bicycles.

“They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway,” said Tur Gul, 38, who was standing on the roadside by a gas station and was shot twice in his right hand. “They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot.”

The tolls varied. The Interior Ministry said 10 persons were killed, while the provincial health chief said eight died.

The U.S. military said eight civilians were killed and 34 wounded after earlier saying 16 were killed and 24 wounded. It did not explain the revised, lower death toll, saying only that the new figures were “the most accurate numbers to date.” A U.S. Marine was also injured in the suicide blast.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the chief of the Interior Ministry’s criminal division would lead a delegation including a U.S.-led coalition official to Nangarhar province today to investigate.

“The coalition says they have proof that gunmen opened fire,” said Mr. Bashary. “But I think more of the gunfire was from the [U.S.] side.”

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