KULANGAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Two NATO service members and five Afghans described by the alliance as insurgents were killed in a gunbattle during a pre-dawn swoop on a house on Friday, prompting angry villagers to demonstrate in protest.
The international force said the dead Afghans were all insurgents, who had opened fire on troops as they approached a house. Villagers in the area in Logar province described the men as civilians.
So-called “night raids” on Afghan houses by foreign troops in the hours of darkness are a frequent source of friction between the Afghan government and the NATO-led force.
The U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has given instructions that night raids be carried out only as a last resort and with Afghan troops in the lead, to prevent incidents where Afghans defending their homes are mistaken for insurgents.
McChrystal has however refused to ban night raids outright, as requested by President Hamid Karzai. McChrystal’s instructions say they can still be an effective and necessary tactic.
Troops were sent to the house “after intelligence indicated insurgent activity,” a NATO statement said. “As the combined force approached the compound they began receiving hostile fire from different points including heavy machine gun fire.”
A “Taliban suicide attack commander” was among those killed in the firefight, and ammunition and bomb-making gear were found in the house, it said, adding that no civilians were harmed.
Scores of angry protesters came out onto the main highway towards Kabul on Friday morning to protest against the incident, chanting “Death to America” and anti-government slogans.
“Why do the Americans kill our people brutally everyday? We want them to stop this or we will pick up weapons and fight them,” said a protester, Nawid, who goes only by one name.
Deen Mohammad, a school student and neighbour of the house where the raid took place, said the five who were killed were two brothers who owned the house, and “three of their guests who had nothing to do with the Taliban.”
Earlier this week, a convoy of NATO forces opened fire on a car in the southeastern Khost province, killing four unarmed teenagers and young men. NATO initially said two of the dead were insurgents, but later acknowledged that all four were civilians.
The NATO-led force said it would send training teams across the country to make sure troops understood McChrystal’s guidance, intended to reduce civilian casualties.
More than 2,400 civilians were killed in 2009, the United Nations says, making it the deadliest year of the war, although the number killed by NATO and Afghan troops has declined since McChrystal took command last year.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; writing by Hamid Shalizi; editing by Peter Graff and Sanjeev Miglani