Tuesday, February 20, 2007

CND soldiers question in conflicting stories ...

Canadian actions questioned in killings
Conflicting stories emerge after Afghan beggar, policeman shot
GRAEME SMITH Globe and Mail Feb 20

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Canadian soldiers have fatally shot an Afghan policeman and a homeless beggar during the latest in a series of bloody incidents that have tarnished the reputation of foreign troops in the city.

The shooting on Sunday night happened after insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and smaller weapons at a Canadian convoy, the first such attack within the city limits since Canada took responsibility for security in this dangerous province nearly 12 months ago.

The Canadian military says two people were mistakenly killed in the ensuing gun battle.

“The shootings occurred during the firefight, while we were engaged with the insurgents,” Major Dale MacEachern said.

Afghan police describe a different version of events. Three senior officers say half an hour had passed since the RPG attack and nobody was shooting at the Canadians when the policeman was killed.

Gulab Shah, 31, the slain officer, had strapped on a pair of night-vision goggles and was peering out from a rooftop watch post overlooking the governor's palace in downtown Kandahar when he was hit by Canadian bullets, police say. He was shot twice in the chest, and was struck by a third bullet in the back of the head as he collapsed.

The Canadian troops and their Afghan allies often disagree over what happened during such incidents; last year, an investigation proved that Afghan authorities lied about a similar shooting in the desert west of Kandahar.

Canada's military police will examine the latest shooting. Kandahar's police chief, Asmatullah Alizai, said he trusts his foreign allies to dig up the relevant facts, but he suggested that the Canadians must ask themselves some troubling questions. If a soldier could see the policeman well enough to target him precisely, Mr. Alizai said, why didn't they notice his police uniform?

“We have specific uniforms, specific watch posts, so why don't you recognize them?” Mr. Alizai said during an emotional interview at his office. “Why do you aim your guns at the governor's office? Don't you know we always guard that place?”

The latest incident marks the eighth time in the past six months that Canadian troops have injured or killed people they mistook for threats on the roads around Kandahar. Mr. Alizai said it's an issue he has already complained about during meetings with military officials at Kandahar Air Field.

It's ironic that the most recent shooting happened at the governor's compound, Mr. Alizai said, because the cluster of buildings contains the 24-hour nerve centre where Canadian, U.S., and Afghan officers from all security forces in the province try to co-ordinate their work — in part, to prevent friendly-fire incidents.

The violence started at 11:16 p.m. on Sunday, shortly after the convoy of Coyote reconnaissance and RG-31 Nyala armoured vehicles had passed through the city's eastern gates on the way into town from Kandahar Air Field. Local police said two rocket-propelled grenades whistled out of a jumble of mud buildings on the south side of the highway and struck just outside the yellow walls of the District 5 police station.

“Having sustained hits by anti-tank rockets, the convoy pushed through this attack without casualties,” Major MacEachern said.

“Approximately 27 minutes later, and three kilometres down the road, the convoy was forced to halt when a Canadian vehicle became disabled as a result of damage sustained from the first attack,” Major MacEachern continued. “It was during this halt that the second attack occurred and the convoy was engaged by small-arms fire. Members of the convoy visually identified and engaged armed insurgents.”

That story of a second attack doesn't fit with the interviews conducted with police and other witnesses, said Aminullah, deputy head of Kandahar's criminal investigations branch, who did many of the interviews himself. Nobody reported skirmishing at the second location, he said, although the Canadian troops probably heard a burst of warning shots about two blocks away as Afghan police shooed away a motorcyclist approaching the Canadian convoy.

The sound of gunfire likely made the Canadians skittish, especially after such an unusual attack inside the city, police said.

The nearest person to the shooting was a 23-year-old police officer whose name was given as Kefayuddin, who had been sitting on a pile of bricks on the rooftop with his friend Mr. Shah. The younger officer was assigned to watch over the governor's compound, while his older friend was off duty, but keeping him company in the late evening.

“My friend was with me,” a signed statement from Mr. Kefayuddin said.

“From the main road he was shot by three bullets, and he fell on the roof. I was afraid, so I gave a warning shot back. ... My friends inside said, ‘Don't shoot, they're NATO.'”

The second person killed that night was a homeless drifter, known as a religious man who often loitered around a nearby mosque. A NATO statement said he ignored warnings to stay away from the convoy, and didn't heed warning shots.

It may take weeks for Canadian investigators to develop a clear picture of what happened; initial reports about such incidents in Afghanistan are often misleading.

In August, after Canadian soldiers killed an Afghan police officer and injured six others, two local authorities publicly declared that the Canadians were at fault because the troops fired at pickup trucks clearly marked “Police” in large letters.

The Canadians maintained they shot at armed men in unmarked vehicles, and were eventually vindicated when military police photographed a pickup truck riddled with bullet holes but with no police markings.