A suicide bombing Sunday targeting an American military convoy triggered chaotic gunfire on a busy highway in eastern Afghanistan, leaving at least eight Afghan civilians dead and about three dozen wounded, officials said.
The incident outside the city of Jalalabad set off a riot in which hundreds of protesters, charging that American troops fired indiscriminately, threw stones and shouted slogans denouncing the United States and the Afghan government.
It was the highest civilian death toll this year in an incident involving U.S. or other foreign troops. Such casualties erode public support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has repeatedly called on coalition forces to exercise greater care to avoid harming civilians.
The incident occurred as the five-vehicle U.S. convoy was on patrol near the Jalalabad airfield, a large base that lies just off a heavily traveled highway to the Pakistani border.
U.S. military officials said American forces opened fire after a suicide attacker detonated a minivan packed with explosives as the convoy passed through the small market town of Bari Kot, whose bazaar was filled with morning shoppers.
Calling the ambush “complex,” the military said that U.S. troops also came under fire from several directions during the suicide attack.
Witnesses, however, said the gunfire appeared to come mainly from U.S. troops whose convoy sped along the highway shooting other vehicles and pedestrians for up to five miles from the blast scene.
“They were firing everywhere,” Tur Gul told the Associated Press. Gul, who was standing at the roadside and suffered gunshot wounds, said he saw more than a dozen cars hit.
“They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot,” he said.
Two Afghan journalists working for the Associated Press said a U.S. soldier deleted their photos and video of a four-wheel-drive vehicle in which three people had been shot to death, about 100 yards from the suicide bombing site, the news service reported. The news service said it planned to lodge a protest with the American military.
Coalition officials blamed the Taliban for the civilian casualties, saying the attackers bore responsibility regardless of whether bystanders were hit by U.S. or insurgent fire.
“We regret the death of innocent Afghan citizens as a result of the Taliban extremists’ cowardly act,” said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. spokesman. “Once again the terrorists demonstrated their blatant disregard for human life by attacking coalition forces in a populated area, knowing full well that innocent Afghans would be killed and wounded in the attack.”
Casualty counts varied, as is often the case in such attacks. Provincial police spokesman Abdul Ghafor said 10 people were killed and about three dozen injured. The U.S. military initially reported 34 civilians killed and 24 wounded, but it later revised its death toll to eight, with 35 hurt.
An American serviceman also was wounded. The dead were said to include at least one woman and two children.
After the incident, demonstrators blocked the roadway near Jalalabad and hurled rocks at police. “Death to America! Death to Karzai!” some shouted.
Afghan and U.S. military officials announced that they would investigate the shootings, which came as the country braced for a new round of fighting that often comes with the warming temperatures that will soon melt the snow in high mountain passes.
Both NATO generals and Taliban commanders have declared they will try to seize the offensive.
Coalition forces have overwhelming military superiority, but Taliban-led insurgents increasingly have turned to nonconventional tactics such as roadside bombings and suicide attacks.
The coalition troops are under orders to be extremely vigilant against suicide bombings, which are a near-daily occurrence. But increasing numbers of Afghan civilians have been shot when troops mistakenly believed they posed a threat.
Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2001. More than 4,000 people were killed in 2006, most of them militants.
Coalition forces in Afghanistan are at their highest levels since the fall of the Taliban, with U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops now totaling more than 45,000.
Special correspondent Azimi reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.