KABUL — American troops raked a large passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar on Monday morning, killing and wounding civilians, and igniting angry anti-American demonstrations in a city where winning over Afghan support is pivotal to the war effort. The shooting, which killed as many as five civilians and wounded 18, occurred on the eve of the most important offensive of the war. In coming weeks, thousands of American, NATO and Afghan troops are expected to try to take control of the Kandahar region, the spiritual home of the Taliban.
It was the latest case in which NATO or American forces fired on and killed civilians near a checkpoint or military convoy because they were perceived to have come too close or to be approaching too fast.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made reducing civilian casualties a priority, and they have gone down over the last year. But checkpoint and convoy shootings have not declined, worrying commanders who believe that such killings are turning Afghans against foreign forces.
Monday’s shooting demonstrated those concerns. Afterward, hundreds of demonstrators poured into the area around a bus station where the damaged bus was taken on the western outskirts of Kandahar. They blocked the road with burning tires for an hour and shouted, “Death to America” and “Death to infidels,” while condemning the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, according to people there.
The American-led military command in Kabul called the killings a “tragic loss of life” and said that troops fired in the early morning light not knowing that the vehicle was a passenger bus and believing that it posed a threat to a military convoy clearing bombs from a highway.