Source AP ©

Southern Afghan clashes kill 24 militants, 7 civilians

A 10-hour battle was sparked by Taliban militants who ambushed foreign and Afghan forces escorting supply trucks in southern Afghanistan. U.S.-led coalition said that at least two dozens militants were killed. Villagers said Monday that at least seven civilians were among the dead.

In the north, a suicide bomber targeted foreigners in a four-wheel drive vehicle Monday, killing two Afghan civilians and wounding two others, officials said. A demonstration against a northern governor, meanwhile, left at least seven dead and 31 injured after gunfire broke out between police and protesters.

The southern violence began Sunday when an Afghan police and coalition convoy hit two roadside bombs and was ambushed by Taliban fighters while escorting 24 supply trucks in Helmand province, a coalition statement said Monday. The blast killed one Afghan truck driver and wounded three coalition soldiers, it said.

Militants then launched rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, and the ensuing 10-hour clash and airstrikes killed "an estimated two dozen enemy fighters," it said.

The coalition said "one enemy fighting position" was destroyed, and "no Afghan civilian injuries were reported."

But Abdul Qudus, a villager from Helmand's Gereshk district, told The Associated Press by phone that airstrikes hit a civilian area.

"They came and bombarded the houses of innocent people. Three houses were completely destroyed. Seven people - including women and children - were killed, and between 10 and 15 were wounded," Qudus said. "Villagers are still searching for five missing people."

Another villager, Abdul Wahid, said the airstrikes struck 20 kilometers (10 miles) away from the convoy ambush site on the main highway.

There was no way to verify the claims of either the coalition or the villagers at the remote battle site. Taliban fighters often seek cover in civilian homes, where they fire on U.S. and NATO forces, leading those homes to be targeted.

The U.N. on Monday said it had counted between 320 and 380 civilians killed in military operations and militant violence in the first four months of the year.

Richard Bennett, chief of human rights for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said insurgents "must stop the wanton disregard" for innocent lives killed by suicide attacks and by the use of civilian locations to launch attacks. He said the issue of civilian deaths by U.S. or NATO troops is complex and "difficult to disentangle."

"In some cases, people are said to be Taliban by one side and claimed to be civilians by the other," he said. "Many Afghans have weapons in their homes, and they may protect their homes. They might not be Taliban. On the other hand, they might be Taliban or other insurgents."

Civilian deaths have been an ongoing point of contention between the government of President Hamid Karzai and U.S. and NATO forces. Foreign troops say they do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.

In northern Kunduz, a suicide bomber targeted foreigners in a four-wheel drive vehicle, but they were unhurt in the blast, said Kunduz provincial police chief Gen. Ayub Salangi. Two civilians in a nearby car were killed, he said.

Northern Afghanistan is usually relatively quiet, but Kunduz has seen a spate of violence in recent months. The last suicide attack nine days ago killed three German soldiers and seven civilians in a busy market.

In the northern province of Jawzjan, at least seven people were killed and 36 injured when gunfire broke out between police and more than 1,000 protesters demonstrating against the provincial governor.

Demonstrators threw stones at police and some hid guns under burqas they were wearing, said Nimatullah, a witness who goes by one name.

Six people died at the hospital and 36 people suffered gunshots wounds, said Kimya Azizi, the chief of the hospital of Shibarghan, the capital of Jawzjan province. She said at least one person died at the protest site.

"The city is paralyzed. We still hear shooting out in the street," she said by telephone.

Rohalla Samon, the governor's spokesman, said the protesters were supporters of powerful northern strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Samon said they tried to take down the Afghan flag and a picture of President Karzai at the governor's compound and put up a flag of Dostum. Three police were among the injured, he said.

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