KABUL (Reuters) – Hundreds of people chanting “Death to America” protested in Kabul on Sunday against a spate of civilian casualties caused by international forces, a sign of the simmering anti-Western emotion among many ordinary Afghans.
The demonstrators marched through the center of the capital, some carrying banners bearing pictures of blood-covered dead children they said were killed in air strikes by foreign forces.
The protest came five days after nine Afghan boys were gunned down by two attack helicopters as they collected firewood in eastern Kunar province.
The incident, in a volatile area that has seen a recent spike in foreign military operations, prompted a rare public apology from the top two U.S. military officers in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama also expressed “deep regret” over the killings to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United Nations called for a review of air strikes by foreign forces in Afghanistan.
“We will never forgive the blood shed by our innocent Afghans who were killed by NATO forces,” said protester Ahmad Baseer, a university student.
“The Kunar incident is not the first and it will not be the last time civilian casualties are caused by foreign troops. All we can do is protest and condemn it.”
Dozens of women were also among the protesters, a rare occurrence in a country where women are largely banned from public life. Using loudspeakers, some of the women chanted: “We don’t want Americans, we don’t want the Taliban, we want peace.”
PROTESTERS BLAME BOTH SIDES
Civilian casualties caused by NATO-led and Afghan forces hunting insurgents have again become a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers, even though U.N. figures show that more than three-quarters are caused by insurgents.
In the latest attack by insurgents, 12 civilians were killed on Sunday when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in southeastern Paktika province, governor Mohebullah Sameem said.
The incident took place in Waza Khwa district as they travelled from neighboring Pakistan, Sameem said, adding two women and five children were among the dead.
Karzai condemned the attack as “un-Islamic.”
There have been at least four incidents of civilian casualties by foreign troops in eastern Afghanistan in the past two weeks in which Afghan officials say more than 80 people died.
International concern has grown considerably and the fallout from the recent incidents is even threatening to hamper peace and reconciliation efforts, with a gradual drawdown of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan to begin in July.
U.S. and NATO commanders have tightened procedures for using air strikes in recent years, but mistaken killings of innocent Afghans still happen, especially with U.S. and NATO forces stepping up operations against insurgents in the past few months.
Although civilian casualties caused by foreign forces have decreased over the past two years — mainly due to a fall in air strikes — aid groups last November warned a recent increase in the use of air power risked reversing those gains.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose 20 percent to 6,215 in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with 2009, according to U.N. figures.
Those caused by foreign and Afghan troops accounted for 12 percent of the total, an 18 percent drop, but it is those which rile Afghans most. While they do not condone them, many Afghans say militant attacks would not happen if international troops were not in Afghanistan.
Many Afghans blame both sides.
“Killing civilians, whether it is the Taliban or foreign forces, is a crime,” said protester Shahla Noori.
“Both the Taliban and Americans are responsible for the killings of thousands of civilians,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Elyas Wahdat in Khost; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait and Daniel Magnowski)
[Image by Spc. Daniel Love via U.S. Army on Flickr]