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Afghan leader accuses West of killing 14 civilians

Faiez is a special correspondent. King is a Times staff writer.

Tensions between Western forces and the Afghan government flared anew Monday when President Hamid Karzai and a provincial governor accused the U.S.-led coalition of killing 14 Afghans who were guarding a road construction project.

Karzai has repeatedly demanded that Western troops take urgent measures to avoid killing and injuring Afghan civilians. Recent high-profile instances of civilian casualties have inflamed public sentiment not only against foreign forces in Afghanistan, but against the U.S.-backed government as well.

In a sign of confusion and disorganization within the Karzai administration, however, the Interior Ministry said in a separate statement that the 14 slain men had fired on coalition forces in Khowst province near the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military and the ministry said in a joint statement that the incident, which occurred Sunday night, was being investigated.

Last week Karzai greeted the news that Barack Obama had won the U.S. presidential election with a blunt demand that the new administration put an end to civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Obama takes office Jan. 20.

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“Despite the Afghan government’s constant requests to NATO and coalition forces to prevent airstrikes that cause the death of innocent people and civilians, such an incident has happened again, which has no justification,” the president’s office said in a statement after the latest reported deaths.

The statement from the Interior Ministry and the U.S. military described the 14 dead as “armed men.” It said they opened fire after their vehicles were ordered to halt, and that the coalition troops “returned fire with rifles and helicopter gunfire.”

Secondary explosions in the vehicles, apparently from ammunition stored in them, apparently caused many of the fatalities.

The governor of Khowst, Arsallah Jamal, said he believed the killings stemmed from a case of mistaken identity. Jamal, who is generally supportive of the Western troops, mostly Americans, stationed in his province, has said that sometimes units from outside the area do not take sufficient precautions to establish whether the locals they encounter are friend or foe.

“I know they were not Taliban militants,” he said of the slain men.

Road construction projects in Afghanistan, which are almost always funded by foreign donors, require round-the-clock protection by private security guards or face certain attack by insurgents. Taliban militants consider such projects tantamount to collaborating with Western interests.

The problem is particularly acute in areas, such as Khowst, that are highly vulnerable to the infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan.

Insurgents have sunk deep roots in Pakistan’s tribal areas abutting Afghanistan, and this has led to serious problems not only with cross-border infiltration but also with attacks on supply shipments headed to Western forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan. In the largest mass hijacking of Western supplies in recent memory, authorities in Pakistan said that at least 13 trucks carrying military supplies through the historic Khyber Pass were commandeered Monday. The Khyber tribal region, once calm, has been roiled by fighting this year.

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Local officials said dozens of insurgents took part in the hijackings along a 20-mile stretch of road on the Pakistani side of the frontier. Reports suggested that the Pakistani military and local constabulary were slow to respond, allowing the militants to stash the stolen goods in hide-outs before government troops arrived at the scene.

Later, a 12-year-old boy was reported killed when Pakistani helicopter gunships attacked near the site of the hijackings, in the Jamrud district of Khyber Agency.

Afghanistan is landlocked, so most shipments bound for coalition troops arrive via Pakistan’s sprawling port of Karachi. The supplies are trucked into Afghanistan via two main routes, one in the south and another in the north.

The hijackers were thought to be affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan’s Taliban movement. Mehsud also has been accused by Pakistani authorities of masterminding the assassination last December of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a charge he has denied.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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M. Karim Faiez reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan

Laura King reporting from istanbul, turkey


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