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Afghans Riot After Deadly Crash by U.S. Military Truck
NY Times
May 29, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 29 — A deadly traffic accident caused by a United States military convoy quickly escalated into a full-blown anti-American riot that raged across much of the Afghan capital on Monday, leaving at least 14 people dead and scores injured.

Witnesses said American soldiers fired on Afghans throwing stones at them after the crash, although the United States military said only that warning shots were fired in the air.

But the crash tapped into a latent resentment of the American military presence here and violence radiated quickly through the city. Gunfire rang out as Afghan police officers and army soldiers tried to control rioters who rampaged for around six hours through the streets burning and looting a dozen offices, cars and police posts. By the end of the day, at least 14 people were dead and more than 90 were injured, hospital officials said.

The Ministry of Interior announced a nighttime curfew for the city for the first time in four years, from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m., and President Hamid Karzai called for calm on national television. "This country has been destroyed for years by rioters and they are using this traffic incident as an excuse," he said.

The speed and magnitude of the unrest was such that hundreds of police officers and army troops struggled to keep the violence from spreading. Both the Afghan government and the American military authority issued statements promising full investigations into the initial event.

Scores of people were treated in hospitals for gunshot wounds, as it became clear the American military, police officers and army soldiers had used their weapons to try to disperse the crowds.

Among the dead was a 7-year-old boy, and two more school children were badly injured, said Dr. Amin, the duty doctor at Khair Khana hospital in the northern part of Kabul. Four people died at the hospital and 60 wounded were given immediate first aid before being transferred to other hospitals, he said.

The sudden explosion of violence may have been set off by the deaths of civilians in the crash, but it was a sign that Afghans were losing patience with the government and the foreign military presence in Afghanistan, residents said.

Ali Seraj, a businessman and a descendant of the Afghan royal family, asserted that the American military had a careless attitude toward human life, whether it involved the bombing of villages in counter-insurgency activities in southern Afghanistan or car accidents in the capital.

"This type of attitude has created a great deal of mistrust and hatred," he said. "Afghan are hospitable, but if they are pushed they will explode."

Just last week, President Karzai ordered an investigation into an American airstrike on a village near Kandahar that killed at least 35 civilians. In another incident, the United States military said last month that it would investigate the killings of seven members of a family in an airstrike in Kunar province during an operation against insurgents.

On Monday, clashes began early in the morning when a truck leading an American military convoy smashed into 12 cars in rush-hour traffic as it came down a long hill from the Khair Khana pass on the north of the city. Five civilians were killed and more wounded in the multiple crash, a statement from Mr. Karzai's office said.

The United States military said in a statement, "A large cargo truck apparently experienced a mechanical failure." The statement continued, "This was a tragic incident and we deeply regret any deaths or injuries resulting from this incident."

An angry crowd gathered and began stoning the American convoy, as well as Afghan police officers when they arrived at the scene. "There are indications that at least one coalition military vehicle fired warning shots over the crowd," the United States military statement said. "We will determine the facts regarding the incident and cooperate fully with Afghan authorities."

But demonstrators and townspeople said the American truck driver had deliberately rammed vehicles as he led the convoy through outlying villages and then into the city. Many said that the American troops fired into the crowd as people gathered and started throwing stones.

One demonstrator, called Ahmadullah, was still shouting, "Death to Karzai," and "Death to America" hours after the initial event. "These Americans came to our country and they are doing this kind of thing in my country, and our government is also their servant and a puppet of the Americans," he shouted to a crowd of people. "We are against America, all Afghans are against them."

Some demonstrators claimed that the American truck had caused fatalities in villages before it even reached Kabul. "The Americans came all the way from Bagram to Kabul and killed about 20 people along the way," said Fraidoon, a youth who was among the demonstrators in the center of town. "That's why we started a demonstration and came here."

He and other bystanders said that up to a dozen demonstrators were shot by guards as they tried to break into a compound belonging to a British security company in a downtown area.

Other protesters tried to reach the United States Embassy compound across town, but were prevented by armed blockades of Afghan police officers and army troops. Others attacked buildings in the commercial center of the city and some marched on the Afghan Parliament in the southwest of the city, attacking a television company and pizzeria nearby.

By late afternoon the crowds had dispersed, leaving people to count the casualties and put out the fires. The offices of the aid organizations CARE International, the French nongovernmental organization ACTED, a pizzeria, a Chinese guesthouse and a district post office were among the compounds that were gutted by fire and ransacked.

The newly opened Serena Hotel, Kabul's first five-star hotel, had its ground floor windows smashed, and traffic police sat outside burnt roadside police posts. NATO troops evacuated diplomats and staff from a European Commission compound downtown.

Mr. Karzai blamed opportunists and rioters for the violence. "My hope from my country people is that wherever you face these elements, do not let them destroy our home once again," he said.

Yet in a sign of the political implications the incident has for the government, the president promised to investigate the circumstances of the car crash and to see that the American soldiers involved are punished if they were found to be guilty. He added that he had received a visit Monday afternoon from the United States ambassador, who had expressed his "deep regrets."

The demonstrators were overwhelmingly young men, even school children, carrying sticks and stones, and were angry at the reports of deaths but also expressed frustration with the government, the police, and general poor standards of living.

"Most of the demonstrators are people who have lost their jobs, and the government cannot provide the people with the basic necessities," said Mukhtar Ziayee, 33 a property dealer. "The people are disappointed."

But some were armed and intent on violence and robbery, residents said. Mohammed Arif Safajoy, the owner of the pizzeria in southwestern Kabul, estimated the rioters had done $50,000 damage to his restaurant.

"This was just a demonstration in name," he said. "They were looters these people who came to my restaurant." Among the looters were high school students from the nearby Habibia High School, and they carried off electric fans, dishes and antique ornaments, he said.

Original Text