KABUL, Afghanistan – Western troops in Afghanistan fired on a passenger bus outside the southern city of Kandahar on Monday, killing four civilians aboard and injuring 18 others, Afghan and NATO officials said. Angry anti-American and anti-government protests erupted soon afterward.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said it “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life” in the shooting and promised a speedy joint investigation with Afghan authorities. Military officials did not immediately identify the nationalities or branch of service of the troops involved.
Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest metropolis, is to be the scene of a massive offensive by coalition troops over the summer. Preliminary operations already have begun in outlying districts, including the one where the shooting took place.
Tensions have been running high in advance of the planned Western push to expel the Taliban from the city, which the insurgents consider their spiritual home.
Coalition troops, many of them American or Canadian, have been trying to clear and control major roads near Kandahar – a task that leaves them vulnerable to vehicle-borne suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Civilians, in turn, risk being mistaken as a threat by Western forces if they drive erratically or stray too close to military convoys.
The early morning shooting occurred in the Zhari district when a bus traveling west on the main highway from Kandahar came up quickly behind several Western military vehicles engaged in road-clearing, said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
Under what NATO calls “escalation-of-force” rules, troops are ordered to use non-lethal means when possible to prevent a suspicious vehicle from getting too close.
Military officials said the slow-moving convoy could not get out of the way of the oncoming bus because it was blocked by an embankment. Troops tried to signal the driver to stop, using flares, flashlights and hand signals, the officials said, without disclosing whether warning shots also were employed.
With the bus gathering speed instead of slowing, the troops opened fire on it, according to the military’s account – only realizing after it had halted that the vehicle was a passenger bus.
As word of the shootings spread, protests erupted on the city’s outskirts. Witnesses said demonstrators burned tires on the main road out of Kandahar and shouted slogans condemning both the United States and President Hamid Karzai.
The timing of the incident is particularly sensitive, coming as U.S. officials are trying to persuade Karzai to lend his full support to the Kandahar offensive. The Afghan leader issued a statement in which he strongly condemned the shooting and offered condolences to families of the dead and injured.