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May 18, 2011

HEIDI VOGT, RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Anger over a nighttime NATO raid flared into violence in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday as an estimated 1,500 people clashed with police and tried to storm a German military base in a protest that left 12 dead.

The riot suggests more trouble ahead for NATO as upcoming troop drawdowns are likely to make the alliance increasingly reliant on quick-strike raids on insurgent hideouts. Such raids often produce results — most famously in the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — but deeply offend Afghans when they go wrong.

Demonstrators swarmed the road leading into the northern city of Taloqan early Wednesday, running through a cloud of dust as they pumped their fists and shouted insults at Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States.

“Death to Karzai! Death to America!” they yelled. The crowd carried aloft the bodies of four people — two men and two women — killed overnight in a NATO raid on the outskirts of the city.

The protesters claimed that all four were civilians gunned down in their home in the middle of the night by an international strike force. NATO said the dead were insurgents and that all four — including the women — had tried to fire weapons at a NATO-Afghan team as they searched the house for an insurgent arms trafficker.

Night raids targeting insurgents regularly stir up controversy. Some Afghans argue that the raids, even if effective, are an affront to a culture that highly values the sanctity of the home.

Residents often charge that international forces go after the wrong people or mistreat civilians as they search compounds. The accusations have persisted despite NATO’s success in reducing civilian casualties and its agreement to conduct night raids alongside Afghan forces.

Distinguishing militants from civilians can be difficult in many areas. Entire villages are thought to be allied with the Taliban or other insurgent groups.

NATO said Tuesday’s raid targeted a militant working with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — an insurgent group allied with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. The militant was involved in arms trafficking and building explosives, NATO said. The alliance did not say if he was killed or captured.

What began as a peaceful demonstration at about 8:30 a.m. soon turned into a riot. The crowd started looting shops and throwing stones at a small German base in the city. They fought back against police who went out to calm the demonstrators, provincial Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said.

The rioters threw hand grenades and Molotov cocktails into the base, wounding two German soldiers and four Afghan guards, the German military said. It said the German soldiers were in stable condition. One was slightly wounded; the other, somewhat more seriously.

Police and some of the rioters exchanged fire, said Faiz Mohammad Tawhedi, a spokesman for the Takhar provincial government. He said at least 12 protesters were killed and that 50 people were wounded — some of them police officers.

Officials estimated that there were about 1,500 demonstrators.

Although the protesters called for Karzai’s death and accused him of being a U.S. stooge, the Afghan president later issued a statement criticizing the NATO raid.

Karzai said the dead were four members of a family who were wrongly struck down. He also said the raid had not been coordinated with Afghan forces — a charge that, if true, would be a breach of protocol. NATO, however, said the raid was conducted with a partnered Afghan force.

Karzai repeatedly condemns night raids in his speeches even though Western officials say he and most top Afghan officials privately favor the strikes as the most effective way of undermining the Taliban power structure.

The protests against nighttime raids illustrate a danger for NATO as the first U.S. forces begin to withdraw in July amid growing anti-foreigner sentiment in Afghanistan after nearly a decade of war.

Part of the idea behind last year’s buildup of 30,000 additional U.S. troops was to protect civilians so they would help drive out insurgents. But as international troop levels decrease, NATO is expected to rely more not only on training Afghan forces but also on targeted strikes against high-value operatives.

Following the successful commando mission against bin Laden’s hideaway in Pakistani town of Abbottabad, some in the U.S. have called for more such operations.

Insurgents, in turn, have promised ramped-up attacks to avenge bin Laden, who had close personal ties with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In the latest attack, a suicide bomber crashed a car into a police bus in eastern Afghanistan, killing 14 people and wounding 16, said Zemeri Bashary, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Most of the casualties were police officers, he said. The bus was traveling to a police academy in the city of Jalalabad city.

There was no claim of responsibility, but it matched the pattern of Taliban attacks against government workers and security forces.

The Pakistani wing of the Taliban has vowed to fight with “new zeal” following bin Laden’s death.

“We have the same target, program and mission,” the group’s deputy commander, Waliur Rehman, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “Our enemies are NATO, Jews and Christians.”