A nighttime operation by United States forces in northern Afghanistan triggered violent protests on Wednesday in front of a German military camp in the city of Taloqan in Takhar province. A funeral march for four people who had been killed by US troops ended in violence at the gates to the camp, which was attacked with hand grenades and incendiary objects.
Local authorities are stating that 11 people died in the altercation between the protesters, Afghan security forces and the German military, the Bundeswehr. In addition, more than 80 people were injured. The sheer number of victims means that it is one of the bloodiest incidents to happen in Afghanistan this year. It is also expected to draw attention again to the precarious security situation in the region where the Bundeswehr has deployed.
A spokesperson for the Bundeswehr later reported in Berlin that at least two German soldiers and four Afghan guards had been injured in the incident. The German and Afghan soldiers had fired their weapons to defend themselves, the spokesperson said, adding that investigators were still seeking to determine whether Bundeswehr soldiers had been responsible for protesters' deaths. Sources at the main German army base in Kunduz, however, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that German soldiers hadn't fired directly on protesters.
Officials said the Bundeswehr is moving as quickly as it can to investigate the circumstances of the attack, the victims and the reaction by soldiers at the base. Leading German officers in Afghanistan spoke of a "dramatic incident" and a "new quality of violence."
Escalation at Camp
The incident began early on Wednesday morning after a funeral march turned into a protest against a US military operation that had taken place near Taloqan. The night before, US troops killed four people including two women while searching for a member of a terrorist group.
The protesters shouted epithets against the US and the Afghan government. Participants in the funeral march then carried the bodies towards the German base, where 40 German Bundeswehr soldiers are stationed. The job of protecting the base has been assumed by Afghan guards.
The circumstances of the ensuing escalation at the gates to the camp have not yet been resolved. The Bundeswehr said Wednesday that the protest against the operation in the Takhar province first began in front of the camp at 8 a.m. German time.
Initially, Afghan police succeeded in dispersing a crowd of an estimated 100 people with warning shots. But later the mass of people returned. Some reports suggest that several thousand participated. At first, the Bundeswehr didn't report anything about the deadly shots. The German command stated that hand grenades and Molotov cocktails had been hurled towards the camp from the protest march. The attacks resulted in the injury of two German soldiers and four other people.
The German soldiers are now reported to be in a stable condition. The Bundeswehr said the camp had then requested backup from the larger base in Kunduz.
Initially, the crowds of mourners had carried the bodies of the four people through the streets of the city, Abdul Jabar Taqwa, the governor of Taloqan, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Unfortunately, insurgents had infiltrated the protesters and incited the crowd," Taqwa said.
The governor stated that he believed that civilians had indeed been killed during the operation by the US troops that preceded the protests. He said the units had acted without informing the local government.
After the attack on the German camp, he said, Bundeswehr soldiers fired into the air. "The Germans didn't target any protesters directly," Taqwa said. "But it is still possible that the bullets killed or injured people."
Raid Was Directed at Terrorist Group
ISAF operations, especially those involving US special forces, frequently result in violent demonstrations by Afghans. In the current case, US forces had killed four people that they had identified as insurgents. But according to participants in the demonstration, the targeted individuals were regarded in the region as civilians who had no connections to the Taliban.
ISAF itself reported that a mixed unit of Afghan and international soldiers had killed four insurgents in Takhar, including two armed women. According to ISAF, the commando raid had been directed against the terrorist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU is considered one of the most dangerous groups in the region and is said to maintain contacts with al-Qaida.
As part of the operation, whose aim was to seize a key member of the group, the soldiers surrounded a farmhouse. According to ISAF, a woman attacked the soldier with an AK-47 shortly afterwards. Later, more armed men ran out of the building and were shot. The ISAF statement did not make it clear whether the targeted member of the terrorist group was among the dead, however. ISAF assured it had done everything possible to protect civilians during the operation.
Just a few weeks ago, an angry mob stormed UN headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif and killed several UN employees. At that time the UN security guards did not fire any warning shots, nor did they try to use force to prevent the mob from entering the secure area.
Protests in Pakistan
Anti-US demonstrations also took place across Pakistan on Wednesday, prompted by an incident that took place on Tuesday. NATO helicopters coming from Afghanistan had fired on a checkpoint in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan, injuring two Pakistani soldiers. According to reports, the two helicopters illegally entered Pakistan's airspace, causing security forces on the ground to open fire. Other reports state that the NATO helicopters initiated the clash by firing at the checkpoint and that Pakistani forces were merely responding to this attack.
The army is now demanding a meeting with the relevant NATO and US representatives to discuss the alleged airspace violation. The US has accused Pakistan of serving as a safe haven for extremists, claiming that the Pakistani Army is not doing enough to find and fight terrorists. North Waziristan, where the incident occurred, is considered a stronghold of the Haqqani network, a radical group known for sending fighters to Afghanistan to fight NATO troops.
The government in Islamabad was previously angered by Washington's decision to enter Pakistani territory without permission and without informing them in advance during the US operation to take out Osama bin Laden on May 2.