KABUL – U.S. soldiers shot and killed an Afghan cleric as he drove Thursday with his young son near an American base on the eastern edge of Kabul, underscoring the dangers facing civilians despite NATO efforts to minimize casualties.
The shooting occurred as Mohammad Yunus, 36, approached a four-lane highway with one of his sons, according to police and witnesses.
Yunus was struck by four bullets fired at his Toyota Corolla and died on the way to the Wazir Akbar Hospital, according to his son-in-law, Abdul Qadir. His son was not injured. Yunus left two wives and 10 children, Abdul-Qadir said.
NATO said the troops fired at "what appeared to be a threatening vehicle" near Camp Phoenix, an area where suicide attacks are not uncommon, but later described the incident as "regrettable" and promised an investigation.
A shopkeeper who witnessed the shooting said a military convoy was traveling from Kabul toward the eastern city of Jalalabad when the gunner in the lead vehicle opened fire as Yunus pulled onto the same highway.
The 25-year-old shopkeeper, who identified himself only as Aymal, said he heard no warning shots.
NATO said an investigation was under way and appropriate action would be taken to ensure troops complied with policies aimed at protecting civilians. It said Yunus' family would be compensated in accordance with local customs.
In London, President Hamid Karzai called on NATO-led forces to do more to prevent innocent Afghans from being killed and wounded.
"Ladies and gentlemen, regrettably, civilian casualties continue to be a great concern for the people of Afghanistan," he told an international conference on Afghanistan. "We should put the protection of people's lives and property at the top of our agenda."
NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said despite measures in place to protect Afghans, "regrettable incidents such as this one can occur."
"On behalf of (NATO), I express my sincere regrets for this loss of life and convey my deepest condolences to his family," he said.
Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside Camp Phoenix to protest the killing. They dispersed after police promised the Americans would discuss the death with local elders, according to district police chief Col. Rohullah, who like many Afghans only uses one name.
The cleric's brother, Mohammad Youssef Ajami, said no compensation could make up for the loss of a life.
"It is totally cruel. Mr. Karzai sitting on his throne has no control over the foreign forces," he said in a telephone interview after the funeral in Laghman province. "They should try these soldiers who shot my brother, who had done nothing wrong and was on a major road in a safe part of Kabul."
A recent U.N. report showed that the number of civilians killed by NATO-led forces has dropped after U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, imposed limits on the use of airstrikes and other measures to protect the population. It said civilian deaths at the hands of the Taliban have increased.
But that hasn't dimmed public outrage as such incidents continue to occur among a population weary of the presence of foreign forces and more than eight years of war.
Also Thursday, a U.S. service member was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, according to the international force. The death brings to at least 26 the number of American deaths in Afghanistan this month, nearly double the 14 killed in all of January last year.
An Afghan policeman also was shot to death by two militants on a motorcycle in the southern city of Kandahar, provincial police chief Gen. Sardar Mohammad Zazai said.
NATO also confirmed as many as 20 suspected militants were killed Wednesday in fighting in northern Afghanistan.
Provincial police said Wednesday 11 insurgents, including two senior commanders, were killed in a joint air-and-ground assault targeting a Taliban compound west of Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province.
Joint forces called in air support after coming under fire from a large number of insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, NATO said in a statement issued Thursday. It said attack aircraft "bombed and strafed insurgents in a tree line," killing 12 to 20 of them.