KABUL – Two American soldiers were killed Thursday in a shooting by an Afghan soldier and a literacy teacher at a joint base in southern Afghanistan, officials said, the latest in a series of deaths as anti-Americanism rises following the burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers.
Both were killed on the same day that the top NATO commander allowed a small number of foreign advisers to return to work at Afghan ministries after more than a week of being locked down in secure locations because of the killing of two other Americans.
Thursday's killings raised to six the number of Americans killed in less than two weeks amid heightened tensions over the Feb. 20 burning of Korans and other Islamic texts that had been dumped in a garbage pit at Bagram Air Field near Kabul. More than 30 Afghans also were killed in six days of violent riots that broke out after the incident.
President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials apologized and said the burning was an accident. His statement has failed to quell the anger, although Muslim protests over the burnings have ebbed this week.
Afghan security forces -- or militants disguised in their uniforms -- have staged a number of attacks against Americans and other members of the international alliance in recent years. But the recent deaths have been linked to the Koran burnings.
The U.S. has said it is committed to staying the course in Afghanistan despite the recent riots and killings, but Thursday's deaths are bound to impact the pivotal training and mentoring program as foreign combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.
NATO forces have advisers embedded in many Afghan ministries, both as trainers and to help manage the transition to Afghan control. The United States and international agencies also have hundreds of civilian advisers in ministries and on development projects run from coalition military bases around the country.
The program is the main component of NATO's exit strategy from Afghanistan and has so far cost the U.S. $22 billion in 2010 and 2011 to train and equip the Afghans.
The U.S. is already reducing its own troop presence by 30,000 at the end of the summer, in line with President Barack Obama's plan to reduce the total U.S. military presence to 68,000 by the end of September. Many of the remaining soldiers will switch from fighting to training and mentoring Afghan forces.
This would be the beginning of a transition away from a combat role for U.S. and coalition forces, a process that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said may be completed as early as mid-2013.
After an Afghan soldier killed four French troops on Jan. 20, France reacted by halting its training program and threatening to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan earlier than planned.
Two U.S. officials in Washington confirmed the two slain NATO service members were Americans. One said details were still unclear but officials believe there were three attackers, two of whom were subsequently killed. He said the third may be in custody. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Hundreds of advisers were pulled out of ministries and other government locations after an Afghan gunman shot and killed two U.S. military advisers on Feb. 25 inside their office at the Interior Ministry. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the ministry shootings, saying they were conducted in retaliation for last week's Koran burnings, but no one has been arrested in the case.
An Afghan soldier also killed two U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan on Feb. 23 during a protest over the Koran burnings.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings said Thursday that Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, approved the return of selected personnel. He did not elaborate which ministries were involved, but an Afghan official said some had returned to a department setting up a government-run security force that will guard international development projects.
A NATO official said less than a dozen advisers had returned. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In Thursday's shooting, NATO said a man in an Afghan army uniform and another in civilian clothes opened fired on coalition and Afghan soldiers, killing two foreign troops. It did not provide further details, and Afghan and U.S. officials gave conflicting accounts about the sequence of events.
A district chief in southern Kandahar's Zhari district said the shootings took place on a NATO base when an Afghan civilian who taught a literacy course for Afghan soldiers and lived on the base started shooting at NATO troops. Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said the shootings occurred at 3 a.m. and that NATO troops returned fire and killed the man and an Afghan soldier.
Mohammad Mohssan, an Afghan Army spokesman in Kandahar city, confirmed the incident occurred at a base in Zhari and involved two Afghans, one of whom was a soldier, who opened fire on coalition troops from a sentry tower. He said both were killed.
In Washington, one of the two officials said two men were though involved-- an Afghan Army officer and a civilian who taught a literacy course on the base for Afghan soldiers. The pair opened fire on an Afghan sentry tower at the forward operating base, then climbed it and began shooting at NATO troops on the ground, the official said.
Obama said Wednesday that his apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai after U.S. forces mistakenly burned Muslim Korans had "calmed things down" but told ABC News that "we're not out of the woods yet." He said he apologized to assuage Afghan anger and protect U.S. forces.
Western officials, meanwhile, said a joint investigation by NATO and Afghan officials into the burnings was nearly complete, and preliminary findings could be released within days.