KABUL, Afghanistan – A deadly traffic accident Monday involving U.S. troops sparked the worst rioting in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban regime, with hundreds of protesters looting shops and shouting "Death to America!" At least eight people were killed and 107 injured, an official said.
Hundreds of Afghan army troops and NATO peacekeepers in tanks were deployed around the city, as chanting protesters marched on the presidential palace and rioters smashed police guard boxes, set fire to police cars and ransacked buildings, including the compound of aid group CARE International. Computers were set on fire and smoke billowed from the buildings, according to an Associated Press reporter.
Witnesses said that Afghan and U.S. troops opened fire to quell protesters. A U.S. spokesman said American troops shot into the air, and AP Television News video showed a machine gun on a Humvee firing over the crowd as the vehicle sped away. But a Kabul police chief said U.S. troops had fired into the crowd.
The AP reporter saw several demonstrators pull a man who appeared to be a Westerner from a civilian vehicle and beat him. The man escaped and ran to a line of police, who fired shots over the heads of the demonstrators.
The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition expressed regret for any deaths and injuries, and said there would be an investigation. Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed for calm, branding rioters "agitators" and saying in a national address that Afghans must stand against those who loot and destroy property.
"We will recognize as the enemy of Afghanistan these people who do these things," he said in the televised speech. "Again, you should stand up against these agitators and not let them destroy our country again."
The government imposed a 10 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew in the capital, the Interior Ministry announced.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, accused U.S. troops of firing on people and said that showed that "Americans consider the whole Afghan nation as their enemies."
Hanif claims to speak for the hard-line militia but his links to its leadership are unclear. He phoned an AP reporter in Pakistan by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
Abdullah Fahim, a Health Ministry spokesman, said that eight bodies were brought to hospitals in Kabul and 107 more Afghans were treated for injuries.
He said there were no foreigners among the wounded or dead. He had no details on how the casualties occurred, and it wasn't immediately clear if the toll included people from the traffic accident.
The riot was the worst in Kabul since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001. It erupted in the city's northern suburbs before spreading into the city center and then to other areas frequented by foreigners, including areas near U.S. and NATO bases.
The unrest started after three U.S. Humvee vehicles coming into the city from the outskirts rammed into a rush-hour traffic jam, hitting several civilian cars, witnesses said.
The coalition said at least one person was killed and six injured in the crash, but police said at least three people were killed and 16 injured.
A Kabul police chief, Sher Shah Usafi, said another person was killed when U.S. troops fired into a crowd of stone-throwing protesters soon after the crash.
Col. Thomas Collins, a coalition spokesman, confirmed there was gunfire at the scene, but said coalition personnel in one military vehicle only fired over the crowd.
He said a large cargo truck in a coalition convoy had suffered a mechanical failure and hit as many as 12 civilian vehicles at a busy intersection. He said the coalition was investigating.
"This was a tragic incident and we deeply regret any deaths or injuries resulting from this incident," Collins said in a statement. "We will determine the facts regarding the incident and cooperate fully with Afghan authorities."
Afghans often complain about what they call the aggressive driving tactics of the U.S. military. Convoys often pass through crowded areas at high speed and sometimes disregard road rules. The U.S. military says such tactics are necessary to protect the troops from attack.
"Today's demonstration is because Americans killed innocent people. We will not stop until foreigners leave the city. We are looking for foreigners to kill," one protester in his late 20s, Gulam Ghaus, said near where rioters burned a police post.
AP Television News video showed hundreds of angry young men hurling rocks at what appeared to be three U.S. military trucks and three dun-colored Humvees as they sped from the area after the crash, their windshields cracked by the stones. A machine gun mounted on one of the Humvees fired into the air over the crowd as the vehicle sped away.
The riot continued for hours into the afternoon.
AP reporters heard several 20-second bursts of heavy automatic gunfire coming from the direction of the U.S. Embassy. It subsided but gunfire was then heard sporadically.
Staff at the U.S. Embassy were moved to a secure location within the heavily fortified building, said Chris Harris, an embassy spokesman. He had no immediate information on the reported gunfire.
In other areas, rioters broke into shops and stole household items. There were unconfirmed reports from protesters that rioters also smashed windows at the five-star Serena Hotel in the city center, popular with foreign visitors.
An AP Television News cameraman and an AP reporter were beaten by protesters but not hurt.
Riots targeting foreigners have broken out before in Kabul, including during the furor early this year over cartoons published in European newspapers of the Prophet Muhammad. Also, last year, a magazine report that U.S. interrogators had sullied Islam's holy book at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay sparked anti-U.S. demonstrations around Afghanistan. In each case, about a dozen people died in the unrest nationwide.