ASADABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets on Wednesday to protest against a raid by foreign troops which Afghan officials say killed 10 civilians, but NATO forces said was a battle in which 9 insurgents died.
The incident, which took place in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan at the weekend, has inflamed tensions between the Afghan government and Western forces.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack and ordered an investigation, but his denunciation comes at a time when there are signs that foreign forces’ efforts to reduce civilian deaths may finally be having some effect.
Karzai’s relationship with the West has soured following his fraud-ridden re-election in August and he is under mounting pressure to stamp out widespread government graft.
However, he is also under domestic pressure to do more to rein in foreign troops. Civilian casualties in previous attacks by NATO-led forces have stoked public anger toward both Westerners and the Afghan government they are backing.
Asadullah Wafa, head of the presidential delegation sent to investigate the weekend attack in Kunar province, one of the most remote and unstable corners in the east, said on Wednesday he had confirmed there were no insurgents among the dead.
“Those people that were killed were innocent civilians,” Wafa told reporters. The victims were eight boys, aged between 13 and 18, and two men in their 20s, he added.
Wafa said foreign troops had been airlifted in for the attack, resolving some confusion about an operation which had previously been described by senior officials as both an airstrike and a “commando-style” raid.
The NATO-led force on Wednesday said they were questioning the claims of civilian casualties and called for a joint investigation with Afghan authorities.
A joint coalition and Afghan force entered the village of Ghazi Khan in Narang district in search of a known insurgent group, the NATO-led force said in a statement.
“As the joint assault force entered the village, they came under fire from several buildings and in returning fire killed nine individuals,” it said.
But Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimy earlier said Afghan troops had not taken part in the operation.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level in the eight years since the ouster of the Taliban. More than 2,000 civilians were killed in the first 10 months of this year, a 10 percent rise on the same period in 2008, according to U.N. figures.
But while total numbers of civilian casualties have risen year on year, the number of ordinary Afghans killed by Afghan and foreign forces decreased this year.
Seventy percent of civilians killed in the first 10 months of 2009 died in insurgent attacks, the United Nations said, up from 55 percent last year. Civilian deaths caused by foreign and Afghan troops fell from 38 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2009.
“We attribute this to concerted efforts on the part of the military forces to put civilians at the fore of military planning,” said U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique.
There are around 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and Washington is sending 30,000 more to try and quell the mounting violence. Other NATO countries are sending 7,000 more.
Since taking command in June, the commander of foreign troops, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, has issued new orders designed to reduce civilian deaths by placing limits on the use of firepower.
But for most Afghans, civilian deaths will continue to be an emotive issue.
In Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, which borders Kunar, around 200 university students rallied in the streets to protest, demanding those responsible for the weekend attack be brought to justice.
“We have no more patience. It has happened repeatedly. If it occurs again, we will drop our pens and take arms,” one group chanted. Others blamed Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama.
“Death to Obama. Down with Karzai,” they shouted.
In Kabul, a crowd of around a hundred, mostly young men, gathered in a western district to vent their frustration at the killings.
“Obama! Obama! Take your soldiers out of Afghanistan!” the protesters chanted, wearing blue headbands with the words: “Stop killing us!” Others held placards with pictures of dead children they said were killed by foreign troops. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Emma Graham-Harrison in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch)