Suspected Taliban Ambush NATO Convoy in Afghanistan

Suspected Taliban militants ambushed a NATO convoy in southern Afghanistan early Tuesday, and a gunshot victim said soldiers fleeing the scene shot him and killed a man in a bakery.

NATO said one civilian was killed and two wounded in the cross-fire after militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and guns as the convoy passed through a civilian area. NATO said soldiers returned fire, but did not specify if the casualties were caused by militants or soldiers.

Afghan officials have pleaded repeatedly with international troops to exercise caution to prevent civilian casualties, which has fueled distrust of international forces and the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

One of the victims, Sidiqullah Khan, was shot in the leg and the hand. He said his friend, a baker with whom he was talking during the clash, was killed.

"I was sitting in a bread shop. There was some fighting with a NATO convoy. The NATO convoy came and started firing on us," Khan said from his hospital bed. "My friend was killed."

NATO said the incident was being investigated.

The Taliban "chose the time and location of the attack, deliberately putting the lives of civilians at risk," said Lt. Col. Mike Smith, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "ISAF soldiers go to great lengths to minimize the risk to civilians, but this incident will be fully investigated by the Afghan National Police, supported by ISAF."

Kandahar provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai declined comment on the incident, saying it is being investigated.

Any civilian casualties are likely to feed anti-foreign troop sentiment in Kandahar, where a NATO convoy fleeing a suicide bomb attack in December opened fire on civilians, leaving at least one dead and six wounded.

According to an Associated Press tally, based on reports from Afghan and Western officials, 151 civilians have been killed by violence in the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on NATO and the U.S.-led coalition.

That total does not include 51 civilians that Afghan officials say were killed in clashes and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the western province of Herat late last month. NATO said it is investigating the deaths. The coalition has said previously that 136 "suspected Taliban fighters" were killed in the clashes and airstrikes.

Separately in Kandahar, a driver working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was assassinated by men on a motorbike as he left for work Tuesday morning. Alizai said a police investigation found the killing was caused by a family dispute.

The U.N. identified the man as Sadequllah, 38, and said that he had been working for the U.N. for 15 years.

"The motives for this attack need to be established, and we are working with the authorities in Kandahar to help the investigation," said Tom Koenigs, the special representative for the U.N. secretary-general for Afghanistan.

Last month, a powerful remote-controlled bomb destroyed a U.N. vehicle in Kandahar, killing four Nepalese guards and an Afghan driver. The attack on a three-vehicle U.N. convoy was the bloodiest in Afghanistan for the world body since the hard-line Taliban militia's 2001 ouster.

"The safety and well-being of those Afghan and international staff who work for the U.N. in Afghanistan is a matter of paramount importance to us," Koenigs said in a statement. "We will spare no effort to ensure that Sadequllah's murderers are found and properly brought to account."

A recent Human Rights Watch report said NATO and U.S. military operations killed at least 230 civilians in 2006 and that most of the year's 900 civilian combat fatalities were from insurgent attacks.