KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A U.S. Special Forces soldier was shot in the face Wednesday when a gunman fired at a group of Americans in an apparent drive-by shooting on a crowded shopping street, the U.S. military said.
Afghan officials said they believed Taliban or Al Qaeda fugitives were responsible and said they feared there may be more such attacks on U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.
The soldier, who was not identified by name, was taken to the hospital at the U.S. base outside the city and was reported in stable condition, said Marine Corps Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. He will be flown to another facility, Mills said without specifying where.
One Afghan was also slightly wounded in the shooting early in the afternoon near the Kandahar governor's mansion, where some U.S. troops are garrisoned, witnesses said.
Afghan troops said they rounded up 15 to 20 people for questioning and summoned shopkeepers in the area of the shooting to the governor's office, where officials told them to be vigilant.
"There are still individual Taliban or Al Qaeda members in the city," said Abdul Bari, a local commander. "They were probably responsible for this. We may see more such incidents in the future."
The shooting occurred five days after an unknown assailant fired a rocket at the Kandahar governor's mansion. The rocket missed the building and exploded, causing no casualties.
The Americans, who witnesses said were wearing civilian clothes, initially thought a firecracker had been thrown from a vehicle until they saw one man was bleeding, Mills said.
Afghan police cordoned off the area and searched for the assailant. Mills said the U.S. command believed the incident was a "drive-by shooting."
An Afghan gun dealer named Daood said four American soldiers were buying magazine belts at his shop when he heard a gunshot outside. It appeared a bullet from a pistol had grazed the face of one American in the street, he said. Daood said an Afghan standing nearby was also grazed.
Around the time of the shooting, the Americans were taking photographs with the many children who had surrounded them, Daood said.
The gunman fled and the wounded American walked to his vehicle unaided even though he was bleeding, Daood said. One Afghan soldier said the American had been shot through the cheek, but was seen smiling and talking.
Another gunsmith, who gave his name only as Mohammed, said the Americans were accompanied by an Afghan translator.
Mohammed Saleem, also a gunsmith, said the Americans quickly left the scene after the shooting and he praised them for not opening fire on a street filled with children who had just left school for the day.
"If they had been Russians, maybe they would have started shooting," Saleem said. "We were surprised that the Americans were armed but didn't shoot."
He and other shopkeepers were collecting money to buy a lunch for poor people on Thursday to express their thanks that the incident was not more serious.
U.S. Special Forces members often drive in downtown Kandahar, stopping to shop in local stores.
The street where the shooting took place is filled with gun shops. Saleem said American troops in civilian clothing stop an average of two times a week to buy gun equipment, including shotgun shells.
The area is a maze of winding, dirt alleyways, kiosks and shacks with many places to hide. Hours after the shooting, U.S. special forces members who stay at the governor's office appeared to be more vigilant than usual; three soldiers with binoculars surveyed the busy, cluttered streets from the roof of the compound.
Kandahar is relatively quiet, but the rocket firing near the governor's office and the shooting of the American soldier were reminders of how violence can easily erupt in the war-weary nation.
Four U.S. soldiers were also killed in the area Monday, in an accidental explosion while trying to destroyed captured ordnance.