JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Protesters took to the streets in Afghanistan on Wednesday, burning an effigy of the US president and shouting "death to Obama" to slam civilian deaths during Western military operations.
Hundreds of university students blocked main roads in Jalalabad, capital of eastern Nangahar province, to protest the alleged deaths of 10 civilians, mostly school children, in a Western military operation on Saturday.
"The government must prevent such unilateral operations otherwise we will take guns instead of pens and fight against them (foreign forces)," students from the University of Nangahar's education faculty said in a statement.
Marching through the main street of Jalalabad, the students chanted "death to Obama" and "death to foreign forces", witnesses said.
The protesters torched a US flag and an effigy of US President Barack Obama in a public square in central Jalalabad, before dispersing.
"Our demonstration is against those foreigners who have come to our country," Safiullah Aminzai, a student organiser, told AFP.
"They have not brought democracy to Afghanistan but they are killing our religious scholars and children," he added.
Civilian deaths in the eight-year war to eradicate a Taliban-led insurgency are a sensitive issue for the Afghan public, and fan tensions between President Hamid Karzai and the 113,000 foreign troops supporting his government.
A similar protest was planned in Kabul against the "killing of civilians, especially the recent killing of students in Kunar by foreign forces," said organisers from the youth wing of Jamiat Eslah, or the Afghan Society for Social Reform and Development.
"The demonstration is to show our hatred, anger and sorrow about the current situation," said Sayed Khalid Rashid.
"Our main request is that the American and NATO forces must leave the country and Afghan people must have political autonomy," he said, adding that he expected hundreds of people to turn out for the march through western Kabul.
Karzai "strongly condemned" the Kunar deaths, which have not been confirmed by either NATO or the US military, and ordered an immediate investigation.
"Initial reports indicate that in a series of operations by international forces in Kunar province... 10 civilians, eight of them school students, have been killed," his office said.
The operations in Kunar, which borders Pakistan, are being led by US Special Forces, a senior Western military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"They have been killing a lot of Taliban and capturing a lot of Taliban," the official said.
The operations were conducted independently of the more than 110,000 NATO and coalition forces fighting to eradicate the Taliban, he said.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), asked to comment on reports of the Kunar deaths, said it had no activities in the region at the time. US Special Forces operate separately from ISAF.
The head of the investigation team dispatched by Karzai to Kunar, Asadullah Wafa, said he met officials and residents of Narang district, south of the provincial capital of Asad Abad, but had no further details.
The United Nations released figures this week showing that civilian deaths rose 10.8 percent in the first 10 months of 2009 to 2,038, up from 1,838 for the same period of 2008.
The UN calculations show the vast majority, or 1,404 civilians, were killed by insurgents fighting to overthrow Karzai's government and eject Western troops.
But extremists rarely claim responsibility for attacks that kill large numbers of civilians, instead blaming foreign forces in an increasingly effective propaganda campaign.
The Taliban rely increasingly on homemade bombs, which exact a horrific toll on civilians and military alike, with foreign troop deaths at a record 508 this year.
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