KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai accused Afghan guards working for U.S. coalition forces of killing a provincial police chief and at least four other security officers during a gunbattle outside a government office Monday.
In a harshly worded statement, Karzai demanded that coalition forces hand over the private security guards involved. But the governor of Kandahar later said 41 guards connected to the incident had been disarmed and arrested by Afghan authorities.
The U.S. military said it was not involved in the shooting, calling it an "Afghan-on-Afghan incident." However, Karzai's statement suggested that the security guards sought refuge at a U.S. coalition base after the killings, and he "demanded that coalition forces prevent such incidents, which weaken the government."
The situation lays bare the often testy relations between Karzai and American officials. The president's accusations come as thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers are deploying across southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's stronghold and a region where Karzai is also seeking votes from his Pashtun tribesmen ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election.
Gunfire broke out after Afghan security guards moved into the heavily protected office of the district attorney in Kandahar and demanded the release of a man accused of forging documents, said Hafizullah Khaliqyar, Kandahar's district attorney.
The Afghan security guards threatened to release the suspect by force, so Khaliqyar called the provincial police chief, he said. It was not clear why they were trying to release the suspect.
"When the police chief wanted to talk to these people, there was some argument, and the gunbattle started," Khaliqyar said.
Among those killed were provincial police chief Matiullah Qati and the province's criminal investigations director. Karzai said five guards were killed, though some officials put the death toll as high as 10.
Only hours later, Karzai's office released a statement.
"President Hamid Karzai demanded that coalition forces hand over the private security individuals belonging to coalition forces responsible for the killing of Kandahar provincial security officials to the relevant security authorities of the Afghan government," the statement said.
It was not clear who the Afghan security guards were. U.S. and NATO forces employ lightly trained Afghan security to guard the exterior of bases. The group also may have been Afghan special forces, which train on a joint U.S.-Afghan base in Kandahar.
A U.S. military spokesman, Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, said no American military forces from any branch — including special operations forces — were present or involved in the incident. U.S. military officials do not speak for any other security branches of the government, such as the CIA.
"The incident was an Afghan-on-Afghan incident and did not involve U.S. or international personnel or equipment," a U.S. military statement said.
The area was sealed by U.S. forces after the shooting, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
Later, the governor, Thoryalai Wesa, said 41 private guards had been disarmed and arrested and would be sent to Kabul for a military trial.
The killing of Kandahar's top police officer is a blow to security efforts in a province from which Taliban leader Mullah Omar once ruled the country. U.S. soldiers are deploying to Kandahar later this summer, part of a surge that will see the total number of American forces in the country brought to 68,000, more than double the 32,000 troops here last year.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and was ousted during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Omar is believed to be in hiding in Pakistan, but his whereabouts are not known.
The Taliban has made a comeback in the last three years, wreaking havoc in much of the country's south, including Kandahar, and forcing President Barack Obama's administration to pour thousands of troops into a war U.S. officials once said had been won.