A US military official said yesterday that US soldiers fired their guns in self-defense, but admitted they might have fired into a crowd of angry Afghan civilians in Kabul after a deadly traffic accident between a military convoy and motorists this week.
"There are initial indications, as part of our ongoing investigation, that coalition soldiers in the convoy did in fact use their weapons in self-defence," Colonel Tom Collins, spokesman for the US-led coalition forces, told a packed press conference.
Coalition forces had initially said after Monday's accident that soldiers had only fired their weapons in the air to disburse the crowd as the convoy was attempting to leave the area.
The accident, which occurred during morning rush hour, drew an angry crowd to the crash site and triggered large-scale rioting in Kabul. As many as 20 people were feared dead and more than 160 wounded in the day's events.
Collins said US military officials were still investigating whether soldiers fired at specific civilians approaching them in what they believed to be an aggressive manner. He also said official were still determining whether the soldiers had followed proper rules of engagement. Television footage at the accident scene appeared to show US soldiers firing indiscriminately around them, and numerous witnesses told reporters that the soldiers fired on civilians.
If the US investigation concludes that soldiers fired on unarmed civilians, it would worsen already strained relations between the Afghan population and US-led international military coalition, which has been involved in previous car accidents with motorists and killed multiple civilians during military operations.
Collins said the crowd at the accident scene was throwing rocks and threatening US soldiers and Afghan police who had come to assist them. He said the crowd eventually overpowered policemen providing a security cordon for the soldiers and that small arms fire erupted within the crowd.
"Our initial investigation shows that fire came from the crowd, and our soldiers used their weapons to defend themselves," Collins said, adding that the soldiers were under imminent threat from the crowd. "The danger was there."
The investigation, which includes Afghan officials, has determined so far that a 27,000kg military cargo truck ploughed into a crowd of occupied cars stuck in traffic because the US military truck had a brakes failure because of overheating.
The truck was part of a 12-vehicle convoy travelling from Bagram Air Force Base north of Kabul through the city's downtown areas en route to the eastern city of Gardez, during which it travelled down steep mountain roads that required heavy breaking.
Collins said the truck's operator was an experienced driver who took evasive action to avoid hitting civilians, including ploughing into unoccupied parked cars while trying to stop, but nonetheless rammed into several occupied vehicles.
"This was a tragic accident, and it truly was an accident," he said. "Our soldiers are honorable. They act very professionally."
After the accident, rumors spread that the convoy had deliberately slammed into the motorists and US soldiers had indiscriminately fired into the gathering crowds.
Gangs of armed men, many of them youths, began walking the streets and chanting, "Death to America," looting stores; throwing stones at police and passing vehicles; and attacking the offices of the UN, foreign aid organizations, police posts, shops, hotels and a television station.