TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Twelve people were killed and 80 wounded in violent protests Wednesday against the killing of two men and two women, accused of being insurgents, in a night-time raid by foreign troops in north Afghanistan, Afghan officials said.
Hundreds of angry demonstrators armed with spades and axes took to the streets of Taloqan, a normally peaceful town in Takhar province, chanting “death to America” and tried to storm a foreign military base nearby.
Local police and residents said the four people killed in the raid late Tuesday night in Taloqan were civilians. NATO-led forces said they were armed insurgents.
Underscoring his often testy relationship with his Western backers, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killing of what he said were four family members by NATO troops.
Karzai asked for an explanation from General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
“Despite repeated warnings from the Afghan President to prevent wayward operations by NATO troops, it seems such incidents have not been stopped,” a statement issued by the presidential palace said.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Afghan and ISAF troops killed four insurgents, including two armed females, while targeting a member of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
In Kabul, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said an IMU leader had been targeted in the raid but “unfortunately” three others, including two women, had also been killed. The IMU leader had been visiting Takhar from neighboring Kunduz province, he said.
The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign troops is a major source of friction between Karzai and Western leaders, and complicates efforts to win support from ordinary Afghans for an increasingly unpopular war.
“Night raids” cause deep anger and resentment among Afghans, due to mistaken killings and what many see as an attack on their dignity. Insurgents are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths, U.N. figures show.
HOSPITAL “PACKED WITH WOUNDED”
In Taloqan, demonstrators threw stones and handfuls of mud at a billboard of Karzai, and chanted “death to Karzai.”
The body of one of the four killed in the raid, draped in a green blanket, was held up on a wooden stretcher and rushed through the crowd.
Police and Afghan security guards opened fire to disperse the crowd, which Takhar police chief Shah Jahan Noori estimated at 3,000 people, after the violence mounted.
“There is no more room in the hospital, it is already packed with wounded,” Hassan Baseej, head of the provincial hospital, told Reuters. He said most of the casualties had gunshot wounds.
The latest civilian deaths come at a time of high anti-Western sentiment. 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.
Despite the presence of around 150,000 foreign troops, violence across Afghanistan last year reached its worst levels since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict.
Petraeus has stepped up night raids since taking over last year, despite calls from Karzai for them to be stopped.
Police chief Noori, who lives near the site of the night-time raid in Taloqan, said there were no insurgents in the area. He said only Afghan civilians had been killed and the raid had been based on “false intelligence.”
“This will only create distance between ordinary people, the government and its international partners,” he said.
ISAF said in a statement the two women who had been killed were both armed, one with an explosives-packed suicide vest.
“A woman wearing a chest rack and armed with an AK-47 rifle attempted to engage the force. The security force gave numerous verbal warnings, but when the armed female pointed her weapon at them, she was subsequently killed,” the statement said.
Another woman then came out of the compound waving a pistol at troops, it said. “The security force engaged the female resulting in her death,” ISAF said.
In male-dominated Afghanistan, female fighters are very rarely found among insurgent ranks, and the few who have been identified are mostly foreigners. A NATO spokesman said he did not know the nationalities of the dead women.
Taloqan resident Mahroof Shah said soldiers descended from four helicopters and started shooting.
The incident 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 woman and an Afghan policeman a week ago.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Daniel Magnowski