Police open fire to disperse Afghan protests

TALOQAN, Afghanistan Thu May 19, 2011 4:32pm EDT

1 of 2. Afghans chant slogans as they protest in Taloqan province May 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Protesters spilled into northern Afghan streets on Thursday, a day after at least 14 people were killed and scores wounded in wild protests that underscored deep tensions between Afghans and foreign troops.

The second day of outcry came as the NATO-led force in Afghanistan said some of its troops had fired during protests on Wednesday, during which at least 80 people were also wounded, although the circumstances were unclear.

The protests were sparked by a disputed "night raid" by Afghan and NATO troops late on Tuesday in which four people were killed, including two women.

Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, have condemned the raid and said four innocent family members were shot dead. The Taliban also denounced the killings.

NATO-led forces maintain four armed insurgents, including a senior member of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and two armed women, were killed.

Thursday's protests were smaller than Wednesday's, when an estimated 3,000 people stormed into the streets of the normally peaceful town of Taloqan, chanting "death to America" and "death to Karzai."

Shah Jahan Noori, police chief of northern Takhar province, said police fired into the air to disperse hundreds of protesters in Taloqan on Thursday, some of whom had tried to storm the police headquarters.

He said some protesters were armed with AK-47 rifles and that some rooms in the police headquarters had been set ablaze.

"It was getting out of control and police had to shoot in the air to disperse them," Noori told Reuters by telephone.

Hassan Basej, head of the Takhar provincial hospital, said three people with gunshot wounds were being treated.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a statement it had launched its own investigations into incidents in Taloqan and urged all sides to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians."

"Tensions remain high in Taloqan today. UNAMA urges all parties to remain calm and to exercise restraint," it said. UNAMA said at least 14 people had been killed in Wednesday's violence.

WARNING SHOTS

While Afghan security forces had been responsible for dispersing Wednesday's violent protests in Taloqan, the NATO-led coalition said some of its troops had fired warning shots when protesters tried to storm a base.

Most of the troops with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan's north are German.

"We know that the ISAF troops involved did fire some shots," said Major Michael Johnson, an ISAF spokesman in Kabul.

"There is a group of folks on their way up there to investigate," he said.

In Berlin, a German NATO spokesman said German troops had fired only warning shots. "It can be excluded with high certainty that by that (firing warning shots) people were killed," the spokesman said.

The mistaken killing of civilians by Western troops as they hunt insurgents is a major source of friction between Karzai and his Western backers.

They also complicate efforts to win support from ordinary Afghans, even though insurgents are responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties.

"Night raids" cause deep anger and resentment among Afghans, due to mistaken killings and what many see as an attack on their dignity.

NATO commanders have stepped up their use of the tactic as one of the most effective ways to trap insurgents, even though Karzai has called repeatedly for them to be stopped.

The latest incident came at a time of high anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan. Last month, seven foreign United Nations staffers were killed when protests against the burning of a Koran by a fundamentalist U.S. pastor turned violent.

It also came after a week in which Afghan officials said NATO troops had inadvertently killed three young Afghan civilians, including a 10-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, in separate incidents. ISAF has also apologized for the death of an unarmed teenage girl and an Afghan policeman a week ago.

(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Berlin; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)