TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Twelve people were killed and 80 wounded in violent protests on Wednesday against the killing of two men and two women in a night-time raid by foreign troops in north Afghanistan, the head of the provincial hospital 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 say the four people killed in the raid late on Tuesday night in Taloqan were civilians. NATO-led forces said those killed in the raid were armed insurgents.
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.
The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign troops is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, 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.
In Taloqan, demonstrators threw stones and handfuls of mud at a billboard of Karzai and also 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.
HOSPITAL “PACKED WITH WOUNDED”
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.
General David Petraeus, the commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, has stepped up night raids since taking over last year, despite calls from Karzai for night raids to be banned.
Police chief Noori, who lives near the site of the night-time raid in Taloqan, said there were no insurgents in the area and the dead were not fighters.
“I strongly condemn this brutal act which only killed civilians,” Noori told Reuters by telephone from Takhar, adding that the dead were all Afghans. He said the raid was carried out based on false intelligence.
“This will only create distance between ordinary people, the government and its international partners,” he 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 Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
“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,” ISAF said in the statement.
“Shortly after, a woman armed with a pistol rushed out of the targeted compound and displayed hostile intent by pointing her pistol at the security force. The security force engaged the female resulting in her death,” the statement added.
Mahroof Shah, who lives close to the house which was raided by the troops, said soldiers descended from four helicopters and started shooting.
“We were all very scared and children were screaming and crying,” he told Reuters.
The incident comes after a week in which NATO troops inadvertently killed three young Afghan civilians.
Foreign troops killed a 10-year-old girl and wounded four other children when responding to insurgent fire in eastern Kunar province on Monday, the provincial governor said.
On Saturday, ISAF said its troops mistakenly killed a 15-year-old boy during a raid with Afghan forces to capture a Taliban fighter in Nangarhar, another turbulent eastern province.
ISAF also apologized for the death of an unarmed teenage woman and an Afghan policeman last Wednesday in Nangarhar.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani