Afghan killings spark anti-US protests

International troops opened fire on a bus carrying Afghan civilians today, killing four people, an Afghan official said, setting off anti-American protests in a key southern city where coalition forces hope to rally the public for a coming offensive against the Taliban.

Today's shooting on the bus in Kandahar province's Zhari district left four dead and another 18 people wounded, Ayubi said. He said international forces took 12 of the wounded to a military hospital. Nato said it was investigating the shooting and planned to issue a statement later Monday.

A passenger interviewed at Kandahar hospital, Rozi Mohammad, said they had just left the Kandahar terminal when the bus pulled over to allow an American convoy to pass. Shooting broke out as the third or fourth American vehicle went by, he said, with gunfire coming from the direction of the convoy.

"They just suddenly opened fire, I don't know why. We had been stopped and after that I don't know what happened," said Mohammad, his left eye was swollen shut and his beard and clothing matted with blood. Doctors said he had suffered a head injury but did not yet know how serious it was.

Within hours, scores of Afghans had blocked the main highway out of Kandahar city with burning tires, chanting "Death to America," and calling for the downfall of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, himself a Kandahar native.

"The Americans are constantly killing our civilians and the government is not demanding an explanation," said resident Mohammad Razaq. "We demand justice from the Karzai government and the punishment of those soldiers responsible."

Nato and Afghan authorities declined to identify the international forces involved by nationality, although numerous eyewitnesses said they were American.

Karzai issued a statement condemning the attack and expressing condolences to the victims.

"This shooting involving a civilian bus violates Nato's commitment to safeguard civilian life," Karzai said.

Elsewhere in the city of Kandahar, three suicide bombers attacked an Afghan intelligence services compound, but were killed after security forces shot at them, said the provincial government spokesman. Four intelligence agents and six civilians, including a teacher at a nearby school, were wounded in the attack, said the spokesman, Zelmai Ayubi.

Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan, was the birthplace of the Taliban regime ousted in 2001 and insurgents remain active there despite a heavy presence of foreign forces. Securing it is key to the US military and Nato's aim of turning around the more than eight-year war, but anger stirred by civilian deaths threatens to undercut local support.

In the attack on the intelligence compound, Afghan forces with automatic weapons engaged the would-be bombers for 20 minutes, wounding one of the attackers who then detonated his explosives belt, said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the provincial council, who is also the president's half brother. The other two bombers were also killed, although it wasn't clear if they too had blown themselves up, Karzai said.

Nato is gearing up for long-anticipated allied operation to push the Taliban out of Kandahar, from which the hardline Islamic movement emerged as a political and military force in the 1990s.

Kandahar's mayor said today's shootings would likely deal a major setback to coalition hopes of winning popular support for the upcoming offensive.

"I've told the Americans and Nato that people are very angry about these kinds of attacks," Gulam Hamidi told The Associated Press. "I've told them 'You're making enemies."'

The top Nato commander in Afghanistan, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has issued strict orders to his troops to try to reduce civilian casualties. But these still occur regularly, unleashing raw emotions that highlight a growing impatience with coalition forces' inability to secure the nation.

Kandahar spokesman Ayubi said the provincial government strongly condemned the shooting. Nato spokesman Master Sgt. Jeff Loftin said the alliance had dispatched a team to the scene to investigate, but didn't say whether its troops were responsible for the civilian deaths.

Loftin said the local command in Kandahar had no further information on what had happened.

With troop levels rising amid heightened violence, at least 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting last year, an increase of 14 per cent from 2008, according to the United Nations. The UN attributed 67 per cent of those deaths to insurgents who use ambushes, assassinations and roadside bombs to spread terror, undermine development and punish Afghans seen as cooperating with foreign forces and the Karzai government.