KABUL At least four Afghans including a policeman were killed when police fired on an angry crowd in Afghanistan's volatile south on Friday, police said, after protesters claimed NATO forces had killed a number of civilians overnight.
Civilian casualties caused by NATO-led troops hunting Taliban fighters and other insurgents have long been a major source of friction between Kabul and its Western backers, occasionally spilling over into violence.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul said there had been an operation targeting insurgents overnight in the Qalad district of Zabul province, which neighbors violent Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"We have no reports about civilian casualties during this operation," a spokesman for ISAF in Kabul said.
Zabul police chief Mohammad Nabi Elhaam said angry residents took to the streets after they said three Afghan civilians had been killed during a "night raid" by ISAF troops.
"A night raid by NATO forces killed three civilians and that provoked people to go out on the streets," Elhaam said.
Afghans have long complained about the use of such raids and air strikes by ISAF targeting insurgents who often hide among the civilian population.
However, U.N. figures show that at least three-quarters of violent civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, whose indiscriminate use of roadside bombs kills many innocent Afghans at the same time as being their most effective weapon against foreign and Afghan troops.
Elhaam said insurgents had infiltrated the crowd of demonstrators in Qalad, which he numbered in the hundreds, and that they had provoked violence. Gunmen among the protesters killed a policeman trying to control the crowd, he said.
"Police had to fire back because one officer was killed by the insurgents who were among the protesters," Elhaam said after the demonstration was brought under control.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said last month that the first six months of 2011 had been the deadliest period for civilians since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It said 1,462 civilians were killed in conflict-related incidents, up 15 percent on the first half of 2010. It blamed insurgents for 80 percent of those deaths.
With the first phase of a gradual transition process from foreign troops to Afghans beginning last month, UNAMA said insurgents had been trying to show that Afghan forces would not be able to provide security alone.
Attacks across Afghanistan have spiked since the start of the transition process, which is due to end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Deaths among NATO forces also hit record levels last year, when 711 were killed, and 2011 is following a similar trend. At least 343 have been killed so far, more than two-thirds of them Americans, according to independent monitor www.icasualties.org.
ISAF said two more had been killed in attacks by insurgents in the south on Friday, but gave no other details.
The rising death toll and cost of the protracted conflict -- Washington is spending about $10 billion a month on the war -- has helped turn public opinion against the war in Afghanistan, particularly in Europe.
NATO forces have made gains against the Taliban in the south over the past 18 months but insurgents have shown a worrying ability to adapt their tactics and take the fight into the east and north of the country.
Insurgents have also dramatically increased the number of targeted killings of senior Afghan officials.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)