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Afghans protest civilian casualties, one wounded

KABUL (Reuters) - Police opened fire during an angry demonstration in western Afghanistan on Thursday, where marchers protested against a U.S. airstrike that the Red Cross says killed dozens of civilians.

One person received a gunshot wound from police fire aimed at trying to control the crowd and prevent them from breaking into the provincial governor’s compound in Farah City, Deputy Governor Younus Rasuli told Reuters by telephone.

“They threw stones at the compound and police had to stop them,” he said. The crowd of about 200 demonstrators chanted anti-U.S. slogans as it pelted the building with rocks.

The protests ended peacefully, residents said, but most shops remained shut in Farah City.

The U.S. airstrikes hit villages in Bala Boluk district, Farah province during a battle on Monday night and Tuesday, with the full extent of the casualties only coming to light late on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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The Red Cross said it had seen dozens of dead bodies and provincial officials said more than 100 civilians could be dead. Those higher figures, if confirmed, would make it the deadliest incident for civilians since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday he regretted all civilian deaths, but added that he had heard reports the Taliban had thrown grenades into houses in Farah to create casualties that could be blamed on American forces.

“We all know that the Taliban use civilian casualties and sometimes create them, to create problems for the United States and our coalition partners. We will have to wait and see what happened in this particular case,” he told a news conference in the Afghan capital.

The protesters demanded the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and also criticized the provincial governor for initially saying that the dead had been Taliban fighters.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the civilian deaths “unjustifiable and acceptable” and raised them with President Barack Obama at a meeting in Washington.

A joint Afghan-U.S. delegation was sent to Farah to investigate the incident on Wednesday, but Washington has yet to give its official account of what happened. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the civilian deaths, and Karzai thanked her for her concern.

Civilian casualties are a source of great strain between Washington and Kabul at a time of rising violence by Islamist Taliban insurgents and with U.S. troop numbers due to be more than doubled during the course of this year.

Additional reporting by Jalil Ahmed Rezayee in Herat; Writing by Golnar Motevalli and Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Philippa Fletcher