Former insurgents who had renounced the Taliban and were in a reintegration program are suspected of taking an assault rifle from a Nepalese guard and opening fire during the anti-Quran-burning riot last week that left seven U.N. workers dead, Afghan officials said Wednesday.
Parliamentarian Mohammad Akbari said government investigators have identified three men they believe were involved in the killing of three U.N. staff members and four Nepalese guards in the April 1 attack against the U.N. headquarters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Four protesters also were killed.
The men were arrested the day of the riot. It began as a peaceful demonstration, but after crowds stormed the building and set fires, some protesters seized weapons and started shooting.
"They had one Kalashnikov which they took from a guard. They fired, according to witnesses," said Akbari, who was part of the investigating team. "They have been recognized by witnesses."
He did not say how many people the suspects are thought to have killed. It remains unclear how the protesters died.
A chief investigator with the Interior Ministry, Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, said one of the men disassembled the AK-47 and took it back to the house where he was staying. The weapon, he said, was found.
It was unclear who is thought to have done the shooting or if more than one weapon was involved. At least one U.N. staffer was killed with a knife to the throat.
Yarmand said two suspects were believed to be directly involved, and that there was evidence that they fired the weapon. The role of the third was unclear.
Akbari said the suspects were former insurgents who had renounced the Taliban and were in a reintegration program. He said all three were from Balkh province, of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital.
The program aims to attract low- to midlevel fighters to join the government with promises of jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages.
In February, a NATO official said that nearly 900 militants had quit the fight and enrolled in the program. The Afghan government has not confirmed that number. There are varying estimates of the number of insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, but the most often quoted estimate is 25,000.
Neither Akbari nor Yarmand provided further detail, but both said the men have denied killing anyone. No one has been charged as the investigation is still under way, they said. A total of 17 men were being questioned in connection with the riot.
There have been almost daily protests across Afghanistan against the Quran-burning last month at a small church in Gainesville, Florida. Most have not turned violent, but 10 people were killed in two days of protests in the southern city of Kandahar.
Swedish troops close to Mazar-i-Sharif had offered to help Afghan security forces police last week's demonstration before it turned violent, but the Afghans turned the offer down, fearing their presence could fuel unrest, Stefan Paris, a spokesman for Germany's defense minister, said Wednesday in Berlin. Germany holds overall responsibility for the command in Afghanistan's north.
Even after a top NATO commander in the region learned that the protest had turned violent, an Afghan official called the command and said the situation was under control, Paris said. Demonstrators stormed the compound minutes later.
International forces quickly sent a surveillance drone, but did not send troops about two hours after the compound was stormed. They would have been entitled to overrule the Afghan security forces, but Paris said there was concern about sending a bad "signal." Mazar-i-Sharif is one of seven areas of the nation where Afghan forces are slated to take the lead in security starting in July.
Anti-foreigner feeling in Afghanistan seems to be running at an all-time high. In Kabul, the capital, many international aid organizations and embassies have restricted the movements, or locked down, their foreign staff.
Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified, with insurgents leaving their hideouts in neighboring Pakistan as the spring fighting season gets under way.
NATO forces in the eastern city of Jalalabad killed seven insurgents who tried to storm a coalition base late Tuesday. NATO said the attack was carried out by insurgents firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
A statement from the coalition added that NATO forces returned fire and called in an attack helicopter. It said there were no coalition casualties. There were no further details on the killed insurgents.
NATO said Wednesday that more than 70 insurgents have been killed so far in a weeklong operation in eastern Kunar province, but it provided no other details. Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said dozens of insurgents were killed and 18 captured in the operation. There have been few details of the fighting released, but at least six U.S. soldiers were killed in the area on March 29.
Sayed Fazelullah Wahidi, the governor of Kunar province, said that in the past two weeks of fighting in Kunar's Warawara and Sirkanay districts, 132 insurgents have been killed, 47 have been arrested and 20 have been wounded. He said many of the insurgents were foreign fighters.
NATO said two service members were killed in a friendly fire incident in southern Afghanistan. It said the incident was under investigation and did not release any details or the nationalities of the two.
President Barack Obama's goal is to withdraw some U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July if conditions allow, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants Afghan forces to be in the lead across the entire nation by the end of 2014. Despite claims of success against the Taliban, government forces essentially only control the major cities and towns in many parts of the south and east.
While violence persisted across the country, there was talk in the capital about efforts to forge a political settlement to end the nearly decade-long war.
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, secretary of a peace council set up by Karzai, shed light on contacts that Afghan officials have had with members of the opposition.
"They have come to us and we also have sent representatives to them," Stanekzai said. "Discussions are going on right now. It's too early to say who went where and when. I don't want to go into the details."
The Afghan government and members of the international community have confirmed informal contacts with insurgents but have said no formal peace talks are under way. Publicly, the Taliban say they won't negotiate as long as foreign forces are in Afghanistan. The Afghan government and the U.S. have said they will reconcile only with members of the Taliban who renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaida and embrace the Afghan constitution.
Stanekzai spoke at a news conference he held with Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry where the U.S. pledged $50 million to the Afghan government for its reconciliation and reintegration program. The program was set up to attract top Taliban leaders to negotiate peace and lure insurgent foot soldiers off the battlefield with offers of aid for them and their villages.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Deb Riechmann in Kabul and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.