Deadly US attack on Afghan bus sparks outrage

Troops’ fire kills 5 civilians, wounds 18

By Richard A. Oppel Jr.
New York Times / April 13, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar yesterday morning, killing and wounding civilians and igniting angry anti-American demonstrations in a city where winning Afghan support is pivotal to the war effort.

The shooting, which killed as many as 5 civilians and wounded 18, occurred on the eve of the most important offensive of the war.

In coming weeks, thousands of American, NATO, and Afghan troops are expected to try to take control of the Kandahar region, the spiritual home of the Taliban.

It was the latest case in which NATO or American forces fired on and killed civilians near a checkpoint or military convoy because they were perceived to have come too close or to be approaching too fast.

General Stanley A. McChrystal, the American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made reducing civilian casualties a priority, and they have gone down over the last year. But checkpoint and convoy shootings have not declined, worrying commanders who believe that such killings are turning Afghans against foreign forces.

Yesterday’s shooting demonstrated those concerns. Afterward, hundreds of demonstrators poured into the area around a bus station where the damaged bus was taken on the western outskirts of Kandahar. They blocked the road with burning tires for an hour and shouted, “Death to America’’ and “Death to infidels,’’ while condemning the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, according to people there.

The American-led military command in Kabul called the killings a “tragic loss of life’’ and said that troops fired in the early-morning light not knowing that the vehicle was a passenger bus and believing that it posed a threat to a military convoy clearing bombs from a highway.

But there were disputes over details, including the number of dead, the relative positions of the convoys, and how the troops could not have understood that the vehicle was a passenger bus.

It was also unclear whether the troops had first shot flares and warned the driver to stay back, as military rules typically require. NATO said they did.

The governor of Kandahar Province, Tooryalai Wesa, called for the commander of the military convoy that opened fire to be prosecuted under military law. “If you want to stop the bus, it should be shot in the tires,’’ Wesa said. “Why shoot the people inside?’’

Karzai, whose relationship with the United States has been particularly fraught in recent weeks, called the shooting “unjustifiable’’ and said that “firing on a passenger bus is against the NATO commitment to save civilian lives.’’

More than 30 people have been killed and 80 wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings since last summer, but not one of those killed was found to have been a threat, military officials say.

The shooting near Kandahar occurred just after daybreak as the bus was taking scores of passengers to Nimruz Province, said Zalmy Ayoubi, a spokesman for Wesa.

Two people who had been on the bus said that an American convoy 60 to 70 yards ahead opened fire as the bus began to pull to the side of the road to allow another military convoy to pass from behind.

The two convoys and the bus were on the main highway in the Zhari district, west of the city of Kandahar. The windows on one side of the bus were shot out.

The governor blamed American forces and said a dozen of the wounded were in serious condition.

A statement issued by the American-led military command in Kabul said that four people were killed.

It said “an unknown, large vehicle’’ drove “at a high rate of speed’’ toward a slow-moving NATO convoy that was clearing mines. The convoy could not move aside because of a steep embankment. Troops used a flashlight and three flares to try to warn the driver, the statement said.