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Afghans mute rage in wake of shooting: Calm prevails in Kandahar one day after Canadian soldier killed boy at roadblock

Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 24 Aug 06


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The people of Kandahar did not rush to blame a Canadian soldier yesterday after a 10-year-old boy was shot dead at a roadblock and the city braced for a backlash.


Tense but calm, Afghanistan's second-largest city appears to have avoided the kind of rioting that shook the country's capital after another incident in which Afghans died at the hands of foreign troops.


Word about the shooting spread slowly, partly because it happened on the northeastern edge of the city with relatively few people watching on late Tuesday afternoon as a motorcycle broke through an Afghan police roadblock and sped toward a Canadian military cordon.


The troops were protecting the scene of a bomb blast that killed a Canadian soldier, and many Afghans who heard the story about the shooting said they understood why foreign troops might shoot at youths, a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old, who drove straight toward them like suicide bombers.


Provincial council members in Kandahar discussed the shooting briefly during their day-long session, but did not condemn the Canadian actions. Relatives of the dead boy expressed anger and disgust to reporters who reached their home in a suburb about seven kilometres south of Kandahar city, but they kept a respectful silence during a short ceremony at a Canadian military base where their son's body was delivered to them. The 17-year-old remained at a military hospital yesterday in serious condition. Both were struck by the same bullet.


Even the boys who work as street vendors near the blast site, who are similar in age to the two youths, defended the Canadian troops as they picked through the rubble of their shops for anything they could salvage from the latest clash between insurgents and foreigners.


"Police waved them away, but he went through anyway," said Agha Shereen, 10, clutching a pomegranate he salvaged from the remains of his family's store.


"These are stupid people if they don't know the rules," said Sami Ullah, 15, who's worried about whether the Canadians will help rebuild his store and restock it with grapes, bread, soda and other goods destroyed by the bombing. But he's not concerned, he says, about whether the Canadian troops should have been more careful with the youths on the motorcycle.


"Canadians said to the driver, 'Don't come here,' " Sami said. "Why did they go there?"


The military now has no reason to suspect the motorcyclists were trying to harm the troops, said Colonel Fred Lewis, deputy commander of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan. But Taliban insurgents have previously packed motorcycles with explosives and used them as improvised explosive devices, he said. Soldiers are also warned to watch for follow-up attacks after bombings.


"They troops have seen pictures of suicide bombers using motorcycles," he said. "So I have a sneaking suspicion that that's exactly what was going through the mind of a soldier, that this was a secondary IED."


General Rick Hillier, Canada's chief of defence staff, said a full investigation was under way, but initial reports indicate protocol was followed.


"Unfortunately in this mission, which is complex and dangerous, the conditions which caused that death to occur are set by a Taliban who refuse to accept the fact that a stable Afghanistan is better for all people," Gen. Hillier said yesterday in St. John's. "It's always devastating when you lose anybody, particularly a child."


It remains unclear why the two youths disobeyed the warnings.


Talatbek Masadykov, head of the United Nations office in Kandahar, said the government could improve its education programs about how to behave around foreign troops.


"Most people here know it's dangerous to violate the rules," Mr. Masadykov said. "The international forces have lost so many people that they don't have a lot of tolerance for mistakes. We're trying to share this information with local people, but it would be better if the local administration took up this issue, on radio and TV."


Despite fears that insurgents will use the shooting as a propaganda tool, Mr. Masadykov said there's no evidence of that happening yet.


The foreigners in Kandahar have reason to be watchful, however.


Sentiments in this southern city are more xenophobic than inside the relatively cosmopolitan capital city of Kabul. But a similar incident in Kabul, in which a runaway American military truck killed three pedestrians, sparked widespread riots in late May. At least 17 people died in the unrest.


Hoping to avoid such anger, NATO's International Security Assistance Force issued a high-level apology yesterday. "We are very sad at what happened and we express our deep regret and condolences to the family and community," said Colonel Arie Vermeij, deputy commander of ISAF's Regional Command South.


People in the south are more reluctant to protest in the streets, because they're worried about upsetting the fragile balance in this volatile region, said Haji Syed Jan, a provincial council member in Kandahar. But the situation could reach a tipping point, he said.


"Today was quiet," Mr. Jan said. "We don't know about tomorrow."

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