KABUL - President Hamid Karzai warned on Wednesday that Afghan patience was wearing thin over the killing of civilians by Western forces hunting Taliban guerrillas, saying further deaths would lead to bad consequences.
Around 50 civilians have been killed in raids by U.S.-led troops in the past week, Afghan officials say, sparking four days so far of anti-American, anti-Karzai protests.
"We can no longer accept civilian casualties. It is becoming a heavy burden," Karzai told reporters at his heavily fortified palace in the capital, Kabul, when asked about the killings.
"It has become too hard for us."
Protesters have called for the removal of Karzai for failing to stop the killings, which are an increasingly sensitive issue in the face of an upsurge in Taliban attacks.
A former government minister, Hamidullah Tarzai, said the current small protests were not yet a major problem for Karzai, but they would become more serious if killings continued.
Karzai said he had repeatedly told U.S. and NATO commanders to coordinate their anti-Taliban raids with his government, stop searching civilian houses and exercise caution to avoid civilian deaths.
"Unfortunately, that cooperation and coordination as we tried it has not given us the result of what we want," Karzai said, adding that the Afghan people's tolerance was being tested.
"That is something that must be changed, must be corrected or the consequences will be bad for all of us."
NO FAITH IN FOREIGN TROOPS
Protests over civilian deaths come in a crunch year for both the Western troops and the Taliban insurgents they are hunting, as both sides seek a decisive advantage.
Karzai also faces rising frustration over the lack of development and rampant corruption since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
About 2,000 protesting university students blocked a main highway between Kabul and Pakistan in the eastern province of Nangarhar on Wednesday, angered by the second killing of civilians in the area by U.S.-led coalition troops in less than two months.
The students burned and stamped on U.S. flags and chanted "Death to America", condemning the killing of up to six civilians in a raid by U.S.-led troops.
"We demand the Afghan parliament bring the perpetrator of this cruel incident to an Islamic court," said Gull Agha, one of the student protesters.
Protesters called for foreign troops to leave immediately, saying they had failed to bring security to Afghanistan.
Protests have also been seen in Herat province, near the Iranian border in the west, where U.S.-led forces had killed 42 civilians in recent days, according to Ferzana Ahmadi, spokeswoman for Herat's governor.
While the protests have not drawn large numbers of people, Tarzai said coalition forces had lost the sympathy of the people.
"Now that has been eroded and that is not a good sign. That may have future repercussions," the former government minister told Reuters.
"If the trend continues and there are further incidents, then I think that is something to worry about."
Thousands of civilians have been killed since U.S.-led troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban government that had sheltered the al Qaeda network.
The violence has not eased off. More than 4,000 people, including 1,000 civilians, died last year.
Scores more civilians have died this year, most in suicide bombings and other Taliban attacks, but a significant number caught up in anti-Taliban operations mounted by foreign troops.
Neighbours of the dead in Nangarhar and officials said those killed on Sunday were civilians, including three women.
The U.S. military said a woman and a teenage girl died after being caught in crossfire while troops killed four Taliban.
The deaths in Nangarhar follow the killing in early March of nearly a dozen civilians by U.S. Marines, who opened fire after their convoy was attacked by a suicide car-bomber.
(Additional reporting by Noor Rahman in Jalalabad and Rodney Joyce in Kabul)
© Reuters 2007.