KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO troops opened fire on a vehicle in southeast Afghanistan, killing four unarmed Afghans, the alliance said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of recent incidents the United Nations has called disturbing.
The father of two of the victims said three of those killed were teenagers and the fourth was a policeman. They were returning from a volleyball match, added Rahmatullah Mansoor, a judge in Khost’s provincial court.
NATO initially said two were “known insurgents” but later acknowledged all may have been civilians.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the incident in a written statement saying the four were civilians and the act went against foreign troops’ commitment to protect the public.
The issue of civilian casualties caused by foreign forces is an emotive one in Afghanistan and has undermined public support for their presence in the country. In the latest incident, troops fired on the vehicle after it accelerated toward their convoy in Khost province and ignored light signals and warning shots, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.
“The vehicle continued to accelerate. Several rounds were fired in an attempt to disable the vehicle, and finally shots were fired into the vehicle itself,” NATO said in the statement.
The statement described the four as including two “known insurgents” and two “associates.”
A spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Vician, later said the two had been described as insurgents because they were found in the military’s vast bio-metric database.
The database includes tens of thousands of civilians as well as suspected insurgents, and Vician acknowledged that the two could have been civilians included for another reason. None of the four were armed and no weapons were found, he said.
Relatives and friends of the victims gathered in Khost, the provincial capital to bury the dead. One body, filmed by Reuters television, was clearly that of a young teenage boy.
Rahmatullah Mansoor said his two sons and two nephews were returning from a volleyball match in Gorbaz district when NATO troops opened fire on their car.
His sons, Faizullah, 14, and Nasratullah, 17, and one of his nephews, Maiwand, 15, were schoolboys, Mansoor told Reuters. His other nephew in the car, Amrullah, was a policeman in his 20s who worked in Khost’s prison, he said.
Members of the Afghan security forces would normally be included in the NATO military bio-metric database.
“They (international troops) saw that there were four young boys in the car and opened fire on them. I think it was an intentional act,” Mansoor said.
“Every person is a suspect or a Taliban member in the eyes of NATO troops. They’re not here to protect us, they’re here to murder us.
“We don’t want any compensation from NATO or the Americans. I lost my sons, my nephews. I want the perpetrators who killed them to be tried in a martial court,” Mansoor said.
Since taking command last year, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has had success in reducing civilian casualties caused by his forces.
But recent weeks have seen a spate of such incidents, prompting the new U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, to describe it last week as a “disturbing trend.”
Last week foreign forces opened fire on a passenger bus outside southern Kandahar city, killing four civilians and wounding 18 others. McChrystal has said such shootings frequently result in deaths of Afghans who posed no threat.
More than 2,400 civilians were killed in 2009, the United Nations says, making it the deadliest year of a war now more than eight years old. While foreign and Afghan troops killed 25 percent fewer civilians last year than in 2008, deaths rose overall, because the number killed by insurgents rose 40 percent.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jeremy Laurence