KABUL, Afghanistan, March 4 — American troops opened fire on a highway filled with civilian cars and bystanders on Sunday, American and Afghan officials said, in an incident that the Americans said left 16 civilians dead and 24 wounded after a suicide car bombing in eastern Afghanistan. One American was also wounded.
The shooting sparked demonstrations, with local people blocking the highway, the main road east from the town of Jalalabad to the border with Pakistan. And there were differences in some of the accounts of the incident, with the Americans saying that the civilians were caught in cross-fire between the troops and militants, and Afghan witnesses and some authorities blaming the Americans for indiscriminately shooting at civilian vehicles in anger after the explosion.
The United States military said the unit came under fire after a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden car near their convoy “as part of a complex ambush involving enemy small-arms fire from several directions.”
Members of the unit, on patrol near Jalalabad airfield, returned fire, and the civilians were killed and wounded in the cross-fire during the battle, according to a statement from the military press office at Bagram Air Base, 40 miles north of Kabul.
“We regret the death of innocent Afghan citizens as a result of the Taliban extremists’ cowardly act,” Lt. Col. David Accetta, a military spokesman, said in the statement. “Once again the terrorists demonstrated their blatant disregard for human life by attacking coalition forces in a populated area, knowing full well that innocent Afghans would be killed and wounded in the attack.”
Yet some of the wounded interviewed in the hospital by news agencies said the only shooting came from the American troops. A hospital official, who asked not to be identified, said all the wounded were suffering from bullet wounds and not shrapnel from the bomb explosion.
Hundreds of Afghans blocked the road and threw rocks at police officers in protest afterward, with some demonstrators shouting “Death to America! Death to Karzai!” a reference to President Hamid Karzai, The Associated Press reported.