Riots breach Kabul 'island'

Hundreds rampaged in the capital Monday after a deadly traffic accident involving a US military convoy.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Hundreds of demonstrators rampaged through the Afghan capital Monday, torching foreign aid agencies and looting businesses in a wave of violence that killed at least 14 people and wounded another 142.

The riots brought the unrest, which has racked southern Afghanistan in recent months, within the gates of Kabul - hitherto seen as an island of stability.

The protest was sparked early Monday when a US military convoy was involved in a traffic accident with a cargo truck that had experienced a mechanical failure. The resulting 12-car pileup killed at least one person, the US military said in a statement. US soldiers fired warning shots over the top of the crowd that had gathered around the accident. However, it remains unclear whether the five people who were killed at the scene were shot by the US military or by Afghan police who arrived to control the crowds.

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A survey of the city's hospitals found that at least 11 more people were killed over the course of the day's rioting, which caused millions of dollars of damage and left a trail of destruction along the route the protesters traveled.

With violence in southern Afghanistan at its worst levels since the fall of the Taliban, the Kabul riots reflect a growing nationwide resentment about the foreign military presence in the country and the glacial pace of reconstruction, say analysts and residents.

"There is a large reservoir of discontent and people are now just looking for a reason to vent their rage," says a Western diplomat who requested anonymity.

Demonstrators set the offices of CARE and other foreign aid agencies ablaze, but also torched a Chinese brothel and Afghan businesses as the demonstrations escalated into looting.

"Many people hate the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] because they see all this money coming into the country and they have not been able to get jobs. They were waiting for a day like today," says Ehsan, an Afghan security officer.

The road accident Monday morning follows a bloody two weeks of fighting around the country that has left nearly 400 people dead. Around 30 civiliarns were killed in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan last week during a battle with the Taliban, stoking public resentment already inflamed by the way Coalition forces drive around the country.

"The US use force in the street with their cars. When Americans are in a hurry they cut people off and they don't care how they drive. We all have to wait in line behind them," says an Afghan UN employee who asked to remain anonymous. Coalition forces often move quickly as a safety precaution.

It remains unclear whether the riots were orchestrated by Islamic militants or were a spontaneous eruption of unrest.

"There was organization behind the demonstrations. They have literally been biding their time and waiting for a catalyst from Coalition forces," says a Western security source, who added that demonstrators were carrying maps with a marching route already marked. The protesters started in the north of Kabul, went through the center of the city, passed by the major hotels, the US Embassy, and the main NATO base, and ended up in the western part of the city. There were other spontaneous demonstrations around the capital.

However, diplomats and many eyewitnesses said the demonstrations have been used by criminals as a window of opportunity for looting and theft.

"Those people on the outskirts of Kabul have always been bandits and they are still thieves. They were waiting for a chance to take stuff from houses," says Rauf, a shopkeeper along the protesters' route who goes by one name.

As the demonstrations subsided, police resumed patrols but were hassling any groups of men they saw standing in the open, punching people with no explanation and shoving them into cars. Questions will now be asked about why the police were unable to contain the riots and protect businesses and aid agencies. The riots lasted a full eight hours.

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