Civilian deaths rise as Afghan fight intensifies

KABUL (Reuters) – Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday to protest against mounting civilian deaths, while five US and NATO troops died in separate insurgent attacks on a bloody day of fighting across the country.

Protesters chanted slogans against foreign forces and Afghan President Hamid Karzai after US troops killed two civilians in a pre-dawn raid on Wednesday in the northern city’s outskirts.

NATO also admitted killing six people with stray artillery on Thursday, a day after an airstrike accidently killed five Afghan soldiers.

Insurgent gunmen also killed 11 Pakistani tribesmen near the eastern Afghan border, opening fire on their bus, while a bomb placed on a motorbike killed one civilian at a bazaar in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Civilian casualties and friendly fire deaths among Afghan security forces have been a frequent irritant between Karzai and Western military forces during the nine-year war since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.

General David Petraeus, the US general tapped by Washington to take over the Afghan war after his predecessor criticised senior administration officials, last week wrote to international troops to warn civilian deaths must be kept at a minimum.

“We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain,” Petraeus, who masterminded the Iraq counter-insurgency, wrote to 150,000 US and NATO troops preparing an all-out offensive against the Taliban in the south.

In Kabul, The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said five soldiers were killed by roadside bombs and insurgent gunfire in separate incidents in the south and east.

A joint Afghan and NATO investigation team found six civilians died on Thursday when artillery shells went astray in Paktia Province, the alliance said in a statement.

“ISAF officials offer sincere condolences to those affected and accept full responsibility for the actions that led to this tragic incident,” the statement said.

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