Civilian deaths rise as Afghan fight intensifies
KABUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif Saturday to protest against mounting civilian deaths, while five U.S. and NATO troops died in separate insurgent attacks on a bloody day of fighting across the country.
Protesters chanted slogans against foreign forces and Afghan President Hamid Karzai after U.S. troops killed two civilians in a pre-dawn raid Wednesday in the northern city's outskirts.
NATO also admitted killing six people with stray artillery Thursday, a day after an airstrike accidentally killed five Afghan soldiers.
Insurgent gunmen also killed 11 Pakistani tribesmen near the eastern Afghan border, opening fire on their bus, while a bomb placed on a motorbike killed one civilian at a bazaar in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths among Afghan security forces have been a frequent irritant between Karzai and Western military forces during the nine-year war since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.
General David Petraeus, the U.S. general tapped by Washington to take over the Afghan war after his predecessor criticized senior administration officials, last week wrote to international troops to warn civilian deaths must be kept at a minimum.
"We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain," Petraeus, who masterminded the Iraq counter-insurgency, wrote to 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops preparing an all-out offensive against the Taliban in the south.
In Kabul, The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said five soldiers were killed by roadside bombs and insurgent gunfire in separate incidents in the south and east.
A joint Afghan and NATO investigation team found six civilians died Thursday when artillery shells went astray in Paktia Province, the alliance said in a statement.
"ISAF officials offer sincere condolences to those affected and accept full responsibility for the actions that led to this tragic incident," the statement said.
Five Afghan government soldiers were accidentally killed and two others wounded in a pre-dawn NATO helicopter airstrike on Wednesday, prompting condemnation from the government.
Petraeus is considering a sensitive change to rules of engagement drawn up his predecessor to avoid civilian casualties, following complaints they tie the hands of coalition troops combating insurgents.
The latest deaths will make any relaxation more difficult and may prompt more strains with the government.
Karzai is already annoyed over plans outlined by Petraeus for Afghan villagers to form militia-style defense groups to help fight the Taliban on their own, The Washington Post newspaper said Saturday.
Casualties among NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan hit a high in June and commanders expect violence to rise in parallel with an anti-insurgent offensive in coming months, raising questions about whether more can be done to protect troops.
Bombers including one suicide attacker hit two separate NATO convoys in eastern Khost and northern Kunduz Saturday, injuring German soldiers and showing the growing insurgency can strike well beyond the Taliban-dominated south.
Two coalition soldiers were killed Friday in separate bomb attacks, NATO said, while a suicide car bomb hit an alliance convoy on a bridge outside Jalalabad, killing one civilian.