Two U.S. soldiers killed as Afghan protests continue; NATO withdraws advisers from ministries

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 25, 2012 

KABUL, Afghanistan _ The commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan on Saturday withdrew all NATO personnel from government ministries in and around Kabul after two U.S. soldiers were killed inside the Afghan Interior Ministry.

The killings of the two Americans inside the high-security Interior Ministry compound came on the fifth day of violent protests over the apparently inadvertent burning of Qurans and other religious materials at Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan. They also are the latest in a rising number of attacks on members of the U.S.-led international force by Afghan security force members, known in U.S. military parlance as "green on blue" incidents.

Gen. John R. Allen, comander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, condemned the attack and announced the personnel recall. U.S. military officials confirmed that two coalition personnel had been killed but did not say whether they were American, and added that they were still gathering information. A high-ranking Interior Ministry source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the dead were Americans.

"We are investigating the crime and will pursue all leads to find the person responsible for this attack," Allen said. "The perpetrator of this attack is a coward whose actions will not go unanswered."

Allen's order indicated that U.S. commanders are deeply concerned about the safety of American military personnel assigned as advisers to government ministries, including the defense and interior ministries, which sit at the heart of the Obama administration's strategy of building up Afghan security forces as U.S.-led international combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014.

Sediq Sediqi, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said that the reason behind the killing was not clear but that a joint investigation by the U.S.-led NATO coalition and Afghan national police has been launched. An Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak officially said that no Afghan police were involved in the shooting.

The Taliban was quick in claiming the responsibility for the killings. In a statement, the group said the attack was carried out by a “holy warrior” named Abdul Rahman and cited the recent burning of Qurans and other Islamic religious materials by American soldiers at Bagram Air Base.

Earlier this week, two U.S. soldiers were shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan national army uniform in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province during protests over the Quran burnings.

Anti-American riots across the country this week have left nearly 30 people dead and hundreds wounded. President Barack Obama apologized this week to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the Quran burnings.

The rising violence over the Quran burnings appears to underscore the massive frustration and anger among ordinary Afghans over the failure of the U.S.-led international forces to subdue the Taliban-led insurgency a decade after the U.S. invasion. The White House and U.S. commanders claim significant progress against the Taliban. But U.S. intelligence officials question whether that progress is sustainable as U.S. forces draw down, while other experts point out that the Taliban still control or influence large sections of the country.

On Saturday, four demonstrators were killed and more than 50 were wounded in protests outside the United Nations compound in Kunduz, said the director of city's health department, Dr. Saad Mukhtar.

Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for Kunduz chief of police, said that three Taliban were among demonstrators in Saturday's protest in Kunduz whom were arrested by the police.

“Three active members of the Taliban were among the demonstrators who provoked the people to march towards UNAMA's office in Kunduz,” said Hussaini, referring to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. He added that as protesters wanted to enter UNAMA's office, security forces reacted.

Hussaini confirmed that 11 police officers were also wounded in the clash.

UNAMA in a statement thanked the Afghan forces for their timely response in Kunduz but regretted the casualties among the demonstrators.

In Laghman province, 26 were injured, including four police and two intelligence officers, when several hundred protesters tried to force their way into governor's compound, said the police chief of Laghman, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sarjang.

Shukoor Rahimi, a protester in Kunduz, told McClatchy that Afghans are Muslims and burning the Quran means an attack on all Muslims and their dignity.

Haji Abdul Aziz, a member of the Laghman provincial council, condemned the burnings but he said that insurgent groups were trying to exploit the burning incident for their own gain.

“Continuing the protests for such a long time is led by the armed opposition,” Aziz said.

(Safi, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Kabul; Landay from Washington.)

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