NATO said Thursday that four insurgents were killed during a raid the night before southwest of Kabul, but villagers insisted the dead were civilians.
About 500 angry demonstrators collected the wooden coffins holding the bodies from the hospital and bore them atop vehicles in a procession toward the provincial capital of Ghazni.
Witnesses said foreign troops descended the Qara Bagh district of Ghazni province in helicopters and stormed two houses at about 10 p.m. Wednesday. They killed a father and his two sons along with a neighbor even though they weren’t armed, according to Musa Jalali and other residents of the Baram village.
NATO denied any civilians were harmed in Wednesday’s action. It said the raid was a joint operation with Afghan forces targeting a high-level Taliban commander who has organized attacks against Afghan and NATO troops and helped smuggle foreign fighters in the area.
“The joint force engaged insurgents while clearing a compound and killed them,” the international force said in a statement.
One of those killed was a young man estimated to be about 15 years old who had grabbed the weapons of a service member, it said, adding one insurgent was detained during the operation.
The conflicting claims reflect growing impatience among Afghans over the presence of NATO-led forces even though a recent U.N. report showed the number of civilian deaths attributed to allied troops had dropped sharply over the past year. The report blamed most civilian casualties on Taliban suicide bombings and other attacks.
A decline in NATO killings of civilians has become a key U.S. goal for winning over the Afghan people. Public outrage over rising death tolls prompted the top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal last year to tighten the rules on the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.
But the precise death toll often matters less than the Afghan public’s perception.
Provincial police chief Khial Baz Shirzai also said the four killed in Wednesday’s raid were insurgents.
Jalali, however, said the slain father worked for a cell phone company and everybody knew him to be a good man. He said he believed a tipster had lied to NATO to provoke the raid against the man, a common complaint among Afghans who believe people use foreign forces to carry out grudges.
“Nobody cares about us ... even the governor can’t help,” he said. “We are finally raising our voices.”
He and other protesters dressed in traditional Afghan clothing raised their fists and chanted anti-U.S. and government slogans as they marched. More people joined the procession as it reached Ghazni.
“Please we are not Talib. But one day maybe we will join with the Taliban because this is the third time this has happened and nobody is listening to us,” said another protester, Habibulah Azizi.