A “complex” ambush involving a suicide car bomb and militant gunfire killed 16 Afghan civilians and wounded 25 people during an attack on a coalition convoy in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, officials said.
Several wounded Afghans said they were shot by U.S. forces fleeing the scene.
The suicide bomber hit the American convoy with an explosives-packed minivan, said Noor Agha Zawok, the spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province, and militants then fired gunfire from several directions, the U.S. military said. Coalition forces returned fire in defense of the attack, the U.S. said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the Afghans were killed by the militants gunfire or that of the U.S. soldiers. One U.S. soldier was injured in the attack.
Hundreds of Afghans gathered to protest the violence, blocking the road and throwing rocks at police, with some demonstrators shouting “Death to America! Death to Karzai,” a reference to President Hamid Karzai.
Maj. William Mitchell, a U.S. military spokesman, said the suicide attack was a “complex ambush,” with militants firing guns at the soldiers from three different points, meaning Afghan civilians could have been killed or wounded by militants.
“We certainly believe it’s possible that the incoming fire from the ambush was wholly or partly responsible for the civilian casualties,” he said.
The incident was under investigation, the coalition said.
Mohammad Ishaq, 15, who was recovering in the Jalalabad hospital from two bullet wounds, said he and his father had pulled their vehicle over when they saw an American convoy approaching.
“When we parked our vehicle, when they passed us, they opened fire on our vehicle,” said Ishaq, who was wounded in his left arm and his right ear. “It was a convoy of three American humvees. All three humvees were firing around.”
U.S. soldiers at the scene deleted photos taken by a freelance photographer working for The Associated Press and video taken by a freelancer working for AP Television News. Neither the photographer nor the cameraman witnessed the suicide attack or the subsequent gunfire. It wasn’t immediately known why the soldiers deleted the photos and videos. The U.S. military didn’t immediately comment on the matter.
The freelance photographer, Rahmat Gul, said he took photos of a four-wheel drive vehicle with four bodies that had been shot to death inside.
An American soldier then took Gul’s camera and deleted the photos. Gul said he later received permission to take photos from another soldier, but that the first soldier came back and angrily told him to delete the photos again. Gul said the soldier raised his fist as if he was going to strike Gul but that he didn’t.
The U.S. soldiers involved in the attack and ensuing gunfire were part of the U.S.-led coalition, not NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. An official who asked not to be identified said the troops were Marine Special Forces.
The casualty toll cited by Afghan officials was not as high as the numbers given by the U.S.-led coalition. Jalalabad hospital director Ajmel Pardus said four of the dead had been taken to his hospital. He said at least 22 people were injured. It wasn’t clear how many Afghans were killed or injured by the suicide blast or from the gunfire.
Lt. Col. David Accetta, a coalition spokesman, said the attack demonstrated the militants’ “blatant disregard for human life” by attacking forces in a populated area. NATO officials repeatedly say that suicide bombs aimed at international and Afghan forces kill far more civilians than soldiers.
A man claiming to speak for Hezb-e-Islami, a group he said is linked to the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the bombing and identified the attacker as an Afghan named Haji Ihsanullah in a telephone call to the AP.
The purported spokesman, who identified himself as Qari Sajjad, said the explosion “destroyed two vehicles, killing or injuring American soldiers.”
Sajjad said the attack was in revenge for “cruel acts” done to Afghans by U.S. forces.
In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, two soldiers were killed during a combat operation Saturday, though NATO’s International Security Assistance Force did not identify their nationalities or say where the violence happened.
Helmand province, where British troops operate, has seen a number of clashes the last several weeks. Canada also has large numbers of troops in the south, in neighboring Kandahar province.