Afghan police mistook American troops on a nighttime patrol for Taliban fighters, opening fire on them and prompting a mistaken engagement that left seven Afghan police dead, officials said Tuesday.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman said the shooting at a remote police checkpoint in the eastern province of Nangarhar "a tragic incident" caused by a lack of communication.
"The police forces were not aware of the coalition's operation," said spokesman Karim Rahimi. "The police checkpoint in the area thought that they were the enemy, so police opened fire on the coalition, and then the coalition thought that the enemies were firing on them, so they returned fire back."
The commander at the post, Esanullah, who goes by one name, said U.S. gunfire and helicopter rockets killed seven policemen and wounded four.
Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said a combined coalition-Afghan force was ambushed by small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades from two sides while on the way to conduct an operation against a suspected Taliban safe house.
"Afghan and coalition forces took incoming fire and they responded to it," Belcher said. The forces called in air support, he said.
A policeman at the remote checkpoint said police called out for the U.S. forces to cease their attack.
"I thought they were Taliban, and we shouted at them to stop, but they came closer and they opened fire," said Khan Mohammad, one of the policemen at the post. "I'm very angry. We are here to protect the Afghan government and help serve the Afghan government, but the Americans have come to kill us."
Rahimi said the incident showed why Karzai has repeatedly called for increased cooperation and communication between Afghan and international troops. He said an investigation into the incident had been opened.
The killings of civilians by international troops has been an ongoing problem in Afghanistan, and several recent civilian shootings prompted the upper house of parliament to pass a bill last month that would prohibit international forces from launching military operations unless they are attacked or have first consulted with the Afghan army, government or police.
From The Associated Press