KABUL, Afghanistan — A crowd of about 300 villagers yelled "Death to the United States" and blocked a main road in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday as they swore that U.S. forces had killed three innocent villagers, officials said.
NATO forces rejected the claim, saying they had killed several suspected insurgents and detained a local Taliban commander in the overnight raid.
The gulf between the two accounts is a reminder of how sensitive every NATO operation in Afghanistan has become. In Taliban-heavy areas it is hard to distinguish villagers from insurgents and sometimes public opinion turns against coalition forces even when they say they are certain they targeted the correct people.
And while NATO has drastically reduced the civilian deaths it causes, the military coalition still makes mistakes. During a clash in southern Helmand province Wednesday, coalition forces mistakenly killed an Afghan woman as they fired back at insurgents, NATO said in a statement.
In the first six months of this year, 386 civilians were killed by NATO or Afghan government forces, including 41 during search-and-seizure operations such as night raids, according to the United Nations.
The Taliban issued a statement decrying the U.N. report, which said insurgent groups were responsible for 76 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in the first half of 2010.
The U.N. "plays a major role as a propaganda organization for the American imperialism and keeps covering up the blatant crimes of the Pentagon," the group said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Thursday's raid happened before dawn in Wardak province's Sayed Abad district, a Taliban-dominated area where Afghan police can only go with very tight security, according to district police Chief Abdul Karim Abed.
Elders from Zarin Khil village said American troops stormed into a family's house and shot three brothers – all young men – and then took their father into custody, Abed said. Police are investigating the allegations but could not yet confirm or deny them, he said.
NATO called the men "suspected insurgents" and a spokesman, Capt. Ryan Donald, said they drew weapons and pointed them at the coalition troops.
"The assault force engaged the threat, killing the men. After securing the compound, the assault force detained one suspected insurgent," NATO said in a statement.
According to villagers, there was no fighting before the troops entered the house.
"They were sleeping in one room and suddenly the soldiers broke the glass window and they fired on them and killed them," said Mahmoud Khan, a relative who lives in the village.
Early Thursday morning, men from the village started to gather in the main market of Sayed Abad to protest the alleged civilian killings, Abed said. The men blocked the main highway going through the area and burned two trucks belonging to Afghan private security contractors, he said.
Abed said he did not have more detailed information because he was unable to leave the police compound.
"If we go out, maybe fighting will start," he said.
In nearby Paktiya province, meanwhile, NATO and Afghan troops killed more than 20 armed insurgents in an ongoing operation to disrupt insurgents in the area around Dazadran district, the coalition said in a statement.
Associated Press Writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report.