Blast Wounds at Least 6 Americans in Afghanistan
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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A nationwide manhunt was under way on Sunday for the chief suspect in the shooting of two American military officers working in the Interior Ministry, and a grenade thrown by protesters wounded at least six American service members in northern Afghanistan.
The continuing animosity over what American officials now say was the inadvertent burning of several Korans last week at the largest air base here underscored the new challenges to the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States, with no clear path toward the restoration of mutual trust.
Rioting was less pervasive on Sunday than it had been for the past several days but was still virulent in northern Afghanistan. At least one Afghan demonstrator was killed in clashes with the Afghan police, and several more were injured.
In eastern Jalalabad, a suicide car bomber detonated what was described as a large blast at the gates of the airport early Monday, killing at least nine people. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the bombing as revenge for the burning of the Korans. No NATO forces were reported killed in the attack.
President Hamid Karzai called for calm during a televised news conference on Sunday, his first since the burning of the Korans. It was a time for self-restraint, he said, "so that it does not provide an opportunity for the enemy to take advantage."
In his address, Mr. Karzai did not offer any new details about the shooting of the two American officers, which happened on Saturday, but he said he understood the decision by NATO to withdraw its advisers from all Afghan ministries in the wake of the attack.
The advisers' withdrawal cast doubt on one of the most critical parts of the international mission in Afghanistan: the mentoring and training of Afghan forces who are to assume responsibility for security and the war against the Taliban after the United States pulls out its combat troops.
The shooting occurred in the National Police Coordination Center, a high-security area of the Interior Ministry that only an elite group of Afghan officers had access to by entering a special code. The center handles information on security developments from across the country. Military officials said that until the investigation was completed, they could not be certain whether the two officers --Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, 44, of Paducah, Ky., of the Air Force, and a major not yet identified by the Defense Department -- were armed, but that they would not have been expecting an attack.
According to three Afghan security officials who were familiar with the case but who asked not to be identified because of the matter's political delicacy, the main suspect is an Afghan, Abdul Saboor, a driver for senior officials who had worked in the ministry for several years. Hired as a noncommissioned officer, he won the trust of his bosses and the ministry's foreign advisers and had been granted access to the coordination center, they said. He is an ethnic Tajik from Parwan Province and is not believed to have any connection to the Taliban, according to people who knew him.
The two American officers were sitting in a small room that has no security cameras and is close to the coordination center. But Mr. Saboor was recorded by other cameras in the building, said Sediq Sediqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman. He apparently entered the room where the officers were sitting and shot them in the head; the pistol used to kill them was equipped with a silencer, two of the Afghan officials said.
After the shootings, Mr. Saboor was apparently able to leave the ministry without complications, the officials said, suggesting to some that he might have had help. He had behaved oddly in recent months, two officials said, and about five months ago he was fired after prolonged absences. But he was later reinstated for reasons that were not clear.
Afghan officials acknowledged that the killings were a serious breach of trust that could undermine the training mission, and they said they were working hard to find the killer.
"We have a search operation under way in every part of Afghanistan," said Mr. Sediqi. Another senior ministry official said that the authorities were reasonably sure that Mr. Saboor had not left the country.
Within hours of the killings on Saturday, four Afghan security officials traveled to Mr. Saboor's home in the mountainous area near the 9,000-foot-high Salang pass. They arrived at 10:30 p.m., roused the village elders and went to Mr. Saboor's house, Maj. Noor Agha, the district police chief, said.
"When we knocked," Major Agha said, "the mother and the wife opened the door, and they were very afraid and said, 'We don't have any man in our house. 'Why are you here?' And I told them, 'Abdul Saboor, your son, had a fight in the ministry and he fled,' but when we saw the house, they were very poor people and we discussed among ourselves who will care for them for now."
They searched the house and found nothing. Major Agha asked Mr. Saboor's mother to call him on her phone, but he did not answer.
Violence by Afghan security personnel or sometimes by Taliban infiltrators wearing the uniforms of the security forces, against NATO troops had already been on the rise before the Koran burning set off nationwide protests and a wave of new attacks, but the fury over the Koran burning has bred a mood of impunity in the past week, with even more Afghans seeming to feel that American troops are fair game.
The injuries to the American service members on Sunday were inflicted after protesters threw a grenade at a camp in the northern city of Kunduz, where the American military has a mentoring program with the Afghan national police, Mohammad Ayub Haqyar, a district official, said.
NATO said that an explosion took place outside the base, wounding several military personnel, but that the base had not been breached. They did not say whether the wounded soldiers were Americans, but Afghan officials confirmed their nationality.
Reporting was contributed by Sharifullah Sahak, Sangar Rahimi and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul and employees of The New York Times from Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.
First Published February 27, 2012 12:01 am