KABUL (Reuters) - Chanting “Death to America!” and weeping as they prayed, hundreds of Kabul university students marched on Sunday in protest against U.S. air strikes last week that Afghan officials say killed more than 100 civilians.
Washington has acknowledged that some civilians were killed during a battle in which its aircraft bombed Afghan villages.
U.S. forces have not said how many people they believe were killed and have blamed Taliban insurgents for firing from the rooftops of homes where civilians sheltered.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says more than 100 and perhaps as many as 130 civilians were killed in air strikes in western Farah province during the battle. Provincial officials say villagers have drawn up lists with names of 147 dead.
If confirmed, such a toll would make it the deadliest incident for civilians since U.S. forces launched their fight against the Taliban in 2001.
The incident has stoked Afghan hostility to U.S. troops even as Washington is sending 17,000 reinforcements in coming months to the country’s south, heartland of the Taliban and the drug trade that produces nearly all the world’s heroin.
Karzai has called for a halt to U.S. air strikes, a dramatic change in tactics which military experts say is highly unlikely.
Students at the university issued a statement calling for troops responsible for civilian casualties to be prosecuted.
“From one side our people are fed up with the beheadings and suicide attacks by the Taliban. From other side, the massacre of people by U.S. forces is a crime they can never forget,” it said.
At the demonstration, attended mainly by male students, marchers held aloft banners that read in English: “USA is biggest terrorist around the world!”
“We gathered here to share our sadness with the innocent people who were martyred. We call on the international community, Afghan government to stop the killing of innocents, stop the killing of an Afghan generation,” said student Ahmad Fahim.
U.S. commanders expect heavy fighting in the coming months as the main contingent of their reinforcements deploy in the Taliban’s southern heartland of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The additional 17,000 troops are part of a dramatic increase that will boost the U.S. presence rise from 32,000 at the beginning of this year to a projected 68,000 by year’s end. Other Western countries have about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Western troops, spread thinly across a vast country where it can be difficult to bring in backup forces on the ground, rely on swift air strikes to rescue forces in danger in situations like last week’s battle in Farah.
But Karzai, who visited Washington last week as reports of the incident were emerging, said they should be stopped.
“The air strikes are not acceptable,” he told CNN on Friday. “Terrorism is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan homes. And you cannot defeat terrorists by air strikes.”
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Tait