- Associated Press - Sunday, January 9, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Hundreds gathered in a mosque in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, demanding NATO forces release an influential cleric arrested in a raid that touched a raw nerve among Afghans, who said they were shut out of the operation.

Opening another potential trouble spot for the coalition, three civilians, including a child, were killed Saturday in the crossfire as militants battled NATO forces, according to officials in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.

Separately, NATO said one of its service members was killed in a bomb blast in southern Afghanistan — the 11th killed so far this year.

In the northern province of Kunduz, NATO said its forces, in tandem with their Afghan counterparts, arrested five people early Sunday in connection with a Dec. 19 attack that killed at least eight Afghan security oldiers and police in the area.

Provincial authorities said hundreds gathered in the main mosque in the city of Kunduz to protest the arrest of Mullah Nurallah, the apparent target of the raid early Sunday.

But irate Afghan authorities denied that local forces were involved.

“It was carried out by U.S. Special Forces, and if they had any Afghan special forces with them, then we’re not aware of it,” said Muhbob Sayedi, the spokesman for the Kunduz governor.

“Instead of conducting early-morning or late-night operations targeting a house inside the city, the Americans could coordinate with Afghan police, and the Afghan police could arrest these people very easily,” he said.

The involvement of Afghan security forces and coordination with Afghan officials in arrest raids is a touchy subject. Afghan officials have argued against night raids, saying they violate cultural norms in the country. Moreover, claims that NATO has acted alone sometimes — even if disproven — have infuriated officials, who see it as an infringement on the nation’s sovereignty. Mr. Sayedi said the arrest of the cleric and the alleged absence of Afghan security forces in the operation touched off the protest at the mosque.

Residents said a 10-year-old boy was among those detained.

Lt. Cmdr. Katie Kendrick, a NATO spokeswoman, disputed Mr.  Sayedi’s claims, saying in an e-mail that “all coalition efforts are led by Afghan forces.”

Cmdr. Kendrick did not identify the raid’s target and said that “Afghan and coalition forces do not detain minors except under extreme circumstances, such as deliberate hostile acts against friendly forces.”

The fallout from the raid reflects the growing tensions in Afghanistan toward the presence of foreign troops, and comes as NATO and Afghan officials are pushing hard to get the country’s security services ready to take over from the international coalition by 2014, when NATO plans to begin to withdraw.

In Helmand, officials said they were investigating whether the three civilians were killed by NATO or insurgent bullets.

The coalition has come under fire for civilian casualties several times.

In another incident on Saturday in Helmand, the governor’s office said in a statement that two other civilians were killed and three wounded when a rocket struck their home. Authorities were investigating who fired the rocket, the statement said.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed.

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