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Marines Kill 4 Afghan Soldiers

Victims of erroneous shooting outside the U.S. Embassy were part of a disarmament team. Incident is a blow to the struggling government.

May 22, 2003|Najibullah Murshed and Paul Watson | Special to The Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines mistakenly shot and killed four Afghan soldiers outside the American Embassy Wednesday, embarrassing President Hamid Karzai as he struggled to show political enemies that he is in charge.

The slain soldiers were part of a disarmament team unloading weapons at a collection depot in an intelligence agency complex across from the embassy about 10:30 a.m., Afghan police and military officials said.

"It was only a misunderstanding," Kabul Police Chief Abdul Basir said. "The Afghan soldiers have been shot by the Americans mistakenly."

U.S. embassies in the region are on heightened alert against terrorist attacks, and there were unconfirmed reports that the Afghans may have fired on a passing car before the Marines guarding the embassy compound shot them.

Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, German commander of the 22-nation International Security Assistance Force, said he heard the firing from the peacekeepers base near the embassy. Van Heyst told reporters that he understood "there was a shooting between the Kabul garrison compound and the American Embassy. Somebody shot on to the Americans and the fire was responded." But the Afghan Defense Ministry said the Marines' fire was unprovoked.

"No single shot from the Afghan soldiers from the start to the end of the incident, and I tell you for sure no shooting from the side of our soldiers," said ministry spokesman Mirjan, who uses only one name. "They've just been shot dead by the Americans."

Embassy officials blamed the deaths on "heightened tensions," spokesman Alberto Fernandes said in a statement.

"An investigation is underway into the particulars of the incident," the statement said. "Both sides will continue to meet and work to ensure security in the area. The U.S. Embassy regrets the loss of life in this incident."

After the shooting, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad canceled a news conference that was scheduled at the embassy for Wednesday evening.

The four soldiers who were killed belonged to the Northern Alliance force that played a crucial part in the 2001 U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban regime and shut down Al Qaeda bases.

The Northern Alliance, which seized Kabul after the Taliban fled the capital in December 2001, is dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, who have had an uneasy relationship with Karzai, a Pushtun, from the start.

Karzai has worked hard to overcome differences with the Northern Alliance as he tries to extend his power beyond the capital city.

Washington's refusal to deploy a peacekeeping force throughout Afghanistan has made that effort more difficult, and Wednesday's shootings came at an especially sensitive moment for the Afghan leader.

On Monday, Karzai told leading Muslim religious leaders in Afghanistan's Supreme Court that he would resign if he was blocked from pursuing his mandate as president. He followed up the next day with a sharp warning to governors, several of whom rule outlying regions as warlords, that they would be fired if they didn't heed the central government's rules and regulations.

Amid Karzai's complaints that the governors had shown little cooperation since he took office, a resolution of his government's security council accuses provincial officials of nepotism, misusing tax revenue and allowing soldiers to meddle in civil matters.

From now on, all government officials -- especially governors -- must channel tax revenue through official banks to the central government and cannot spend it without approval from Kabul, the resolution says.

While corrupt governors and their loyalists siphon off cash, Karzai's administration is having so much trouble finding enough money that many civil servants aren't getting paid on time.

The security council's 13-point document also insists that governors are responsible for implementing the central government's policies, military commanders can't launch operations without Kabul's approval, and no military or civilian official can enter into contracts abroad without authorization from Karzai's administration.

The Kabul government will send "special delegates" to the regions to check for any violations of the resolution, it adds. The text also claims that all governors have accepted the new restrictions.

"The resolution will be put in action in a matter of days, not months," said Karzai's chief of staff, Sayed Tayeb Jawad.

*

Special correspondent Murshed reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Watson from New Delhi.

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