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Calm returns to Afghan town after anti-U.S. rioting

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI Correspondent   |   Jan. 13, 2010 at 2:50 PM   |   Comments

DARVISHAN, Afghanistan, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Anti-American violence eased Wednesday in the southern Afghanistan town of Darvishan, where the Taliban fanned demonstrations following rumors of desecration of the Koran in a U.S.-led operation.

U.S. military officials said there was no truth to rumors that the Islamic holy book had been mistreated, but protests had turned deadly before U.S. and Afghan officials met with community and tribal elders to diffuse tensions and security forces discouraged potential demonstrators from entering the town.

Six Afghan civilians were killed about 20 miles south of Darvishan when a large group of villagers heading for the Garmsir District center failed to heed repeated warnings to turn back and tried to force their way through a military checkpoint, U.S. Marine officers said.

One person was shot by a Marine and five others were shot by Afghan soldiers, officials said.

An Afghan policeman was critically wounded Wednesday when suspected Taliban gunmen ambushed him on the outskirts of Darvishan as he drove to work.

"It was generally calm here today," Lt. Col. John McDonough, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, said at a staff briefing at Combat Outpost Delhi, on the edge of Darvishan. "Let's work to keep it that way."

U.S. Marines were pelted with rocks and sprayed with gunfire Tuesday in Darvishan as Taliban-led rioting roiled the town, which is located in southern Helmand province. One Afghan gunman was killed by a Marine sniper. No Marines were killed or seriously injured.

Three Afghan civilians were found dead Tuesday in the town, but the circumstances surrounding their deaths were unclear.

One Afghan soldier was wounded by gunmen Tuesday, Marines said, and several civilians were injured.

The rioting came amid rumors -- spawned by the Taliban or fanned by them -- that U.S. forces had desecrated the Koran and maltreated women in a district village during a raid to detain members of the militant organization.

"While denying these allegations, we take them very seriously and support a combined investigation with local Afghan authorities," U.S. Marines Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, the deputy chief of staff for operations for the International Security Assistance Force, said in a statement in Kabul. "ISAF is an international force that includes Muslim soldiers and we deplore such as action under any circumstance."

Rioting began in Darvishan mid-morning Tuesday when hundreds of demonstrators converged on an Afghan security force facility. Rocks were thrown and protesters in the crowd fired at the facility with semiautomatic weapons. Rioters moved 700 yards down the road and besieged the Garmsir District Government Center, where more rocks were thrown and more shots were fired.

Nine Marines from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, were at the center at the time as part of a team mentoring Afghan security forces. No Marines were injured but one Afghan on the premises was wounded, Marines said.

A convoy of reinforcements from COP Delhi tried to reach the center but backed up a half mile to use a different route when the vehicles were surrounded by rock throwers and fired upon.

"It was like watching the movie 'Blackhawk Down' about Mogadishu (Somalia) except it was downtown Darvishan and I was in it," said Master Sgt. Bill Heyob, who had gone to reinforce the besieged Marines at the district center.

"My gunner kept yelling he had definite targets, people shooting at us but he couldn't fire back because there were unarmed people around them," Heyob said.

Heyob's mine-resistant vehicle later showed the marks of the encounter. All its windows were spider-webbed from bullets.

Once at the center, Heyob and his men fired warning shots to keep unarmed rioters away. He said they did not fire into the crowd.

About the same time, a second group of rioters approached COP Delhi and fired at the facility but ran when Afghan forces on the main gate fired back.

The rioting lasted about four hours. A number of trucks were set on fire, shops were looted and a school was set ablaze.

"Sh-t happened fast," Lt. Col. John McDonough, commander of 2-2, said at a meeting with his officers later in the evening. "There were plenty of opportunities to shoot people today and everyone showed restraint."

Afghan security police later told Marines that the demonstrations were led by several members of the Taliban and many of the rioters had traveled to the town earlier in the morning from villages to the south.

The allegations of desecrating the Koran stemmed from an operation in the village of Barcha, about 6 miles south of Darvishan, when U.S. and Afghan forces raided a compound to detain suspected Taliban gunmen and bombers. Barcha is a hotbed area for Taliban land mines. Marines find two to five a day seeded along the area's main road or at the crossroads of footpaths next to farmers' fields.

McDonough denied that any desecration took place or that women were mistreated.

A security adviser to Helmand province's governor visited Darvishan to view damage to the town, investigate the circumstances surrounding the rioting and meet with local officials on preventing similar incidents.

Garmsir is in the southern portion of Helmand province, the country's most volatile region and a major opium growing area, a crop from which the Taliban derives funding. In 2008 and early 2009 it was a major Taliban command-and-control, transit and supply area.

© 2010 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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