Asia Crisis

Afghans protest anti-Qaeda raid which kills two

(Adds quote paragraph 8, separate raid paragraph 9)

BATI KOT, Afghanistan, March 19 (Reuters) - Foreign and Afghan troops killed two militants in a raid against al Qaeda bomb-makers on Thursday, the U.S. military said, but angry protesters said the dead were civilians.

Civilian casualties are the greatest source of tension between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Western governments and have undermined public support for the presence of more than 70,000 foreign troops fighting a growing Taliban-led insurgency.

The early morning raid was aimed at disabling an al Qaeda cell of bomb-makers and planners in Bati Kot district in Nangarhar province, 140 km (90 miles) east of the capital Kabul, the U.S. military said in a statement.

"Two armed militants engaged the force and were killed, a total of four suspected militants were detained," it said.

But district governor Khaibar Momand condemned the killings, saying the victims were civilians and that the operation had not been coordinated with Afghan troops.

About 100 residents gathered to protest against the killings, saying they would not bury the bodies until they received an explanation. Four houses were also destroyed in the raid, residents told Reuters.

"It is better to join the Taliban than be neutral and be victimised," one resident named Rahmatullah said.

"Foreign forces are not here for our security, they capture civilians in the middle of the night and kill them. The government is useless and we won't ask anything from it. We can take our own revenge ourselves," he said.

Separately, NATO-led and Afghan forces detained a suspected insurgent leader and 17 others during a raid in Logar province, south of Kabul, on Thursday, the alliance said in a statement.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001, with attacks spreading from the south and east to the outskirts of Kabul.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than in 2007, the United Nations said. Around a quarter were killed by international forces, it said.

The commander of all foreign forces in Afghanistan issued a directive last September saying his soldiers should not enter an Afghan house or mosque uninvited unless led by Afghan forces or troops were in "clear danger". (Writing by Hamid Shalizi and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait)