DELARAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine commander in south Afghanistan blamed provocateurs for using religion to stir up a violent demonstration that has raised the political temperature in the country’s most volatile region.
Afghan officials said Tuesday’s protest ended with eight protesters dead at the hands of Afghan troops after they tried to storm a building in the Garmsir district of Helmand province, Afghanistan’s opium-growing heartland.
U.S. Marines also opened fire during the demonstration, but say they did not shoot at civilians and killed only a sniper who fired first at an Afghan official on a U.S. base.
The demonstration was triggered by reports, which the Americans say were false, that U.S. troops had desecrated holy books or abused women during a raid two days before.
Colonel George Amland, second in command of the Marine brigade in Helmand, said the U.S. troops — who have been urged in recent months to make protecting civilians a priority — behaved extremely well in the face of a difficult situation.
“The Marines ... acted with a great deal of restraint and actually got the local leadership in Garmsir out in front and defused the situation,” Amland told reporters.
“There were other elements in that crowd obviously, actively trying to incite a greater civil disturbance,” he said. “People will sometimes try to employ the lowest common denominator which is — they can’t think of anything else to do but find a religious issue to take exception to and exploit.”
Provincial officials and Marines met villagers at a shura — a traditional Afghan meeting — to discuss the incident.
NATO forces have said they shot only an “insurgent sniper” after he targeted an Afghan official inside the main base in Garmsir district.
A deputy provincial police chief in Helmand said Afghan troops killed eight demonstrators and wounded 13 when they opened fire after demonstrators tried to storm a government building.
Civilian deaths caused by Western and government troops are among the most sensitive issues in Afghanistan and have sparked several demonstrations in recent weeks.
A new UN report showed that a record number of civilians were killed in 2009, although the number killed by foreign and government troops actually declined by a quarter, while the number killed by insurgents rose by 60 percent.
Insurgents killed roughly two thirds of the 2,400 who died, while NATO and government troops killed nearly 600.
Assadullah Shirzad, a provincial police chief, said a delegation representing the provincial governor attended the shura and will investigate the reports of civilian casualties.
The demonstration took place near the district centre of Garmsir, a comparatively secure area in the volatile lower Helmand River valley, most of which was seized by the Marines in July during the biggest operation of the eight-year-old war.
Additional reporting by Abdul Malek in LASHKAR GAH; Writing by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani