By Mohammad Stanekzai
LASHKARGAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Hundreds of Afghans marched on Tuesday in protest against the deaths of at least 40 wedding party guests who were caught in the crossfire of a clash between U.S.-backed government forces and Islamist militants.
With presidential elections due this coming Saturday, the killings and the many more before them threaten to alienate Afghanistan’s people from elites in the capital Kabul.
“The government is busy with its election campaigns, they have no plan for the protection of the people and that is why civilians get killed and bombed every day,” said Mullah Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, a tribal elder who took part in the demonstration in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province.
“In such a situation people will boycott the elections and nobody will vote,” he said.
Civilians have paid a heavy price in a war that has intensified since U.S.-Taliban peace talks collapsed two weeks ago. The wedding deaths occurred days after a U.S. drone strike killed 32 pine nut harvesters but which officials said was aimed at militants.
On Sunday night, members of the wedding party were caught in the crossfire of explosions and bullets during a U.S.-backed Afghan government force raid on a nearby Islamist hideout, officials in Helmand said.
Tuesday’s marchers demanded an investigation into the deaths and justice for the victims.
Though the protest was peaceful as it wound through the city’s main bazaar, anger was palpable as demonstrators chanted a call for death to the civilians’ killers, a Reuters reporter said.
Some said civilians had been deliberately targeted, others expressed fatigue at the frequency of such events.
“These incidents happen in every corner of the country every day, yet there is no responsible agency to ask to investigate them,” said Abdul Wali.
Last week President Ashraf Ghani promised measures to reduce civilian casualties. On Monday, he called for “extra caution” in military operations and ordered investigations.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for each of the deaths.
Afghan officials said a house being used by the Taliban to train suicide bombers was located next to the bride’s home that came under fire during Sunday night’s commando assault in the Musa Qala area of Helmand.
Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said on Monday most of these killed were struck by the gunfire of militants or from detonations of their explosives caches or suicide vests.
A Taliban spokesman said the U.S. and government forces killed the wedding guests.
On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s intelligence service said that Afghan forces killed six al Qaeda and 17 Taliban members and arrested 14 others.
Among the captured were five Pakistanis and a Bangladeshi national, the defence ministry said separately.
When U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet two weeks ago abruptly ended Washington’s peace talks with the Taliban, the hopes of many Afghans after almost 18 years of war were shattered. They fear the war will not end and civilians will continue to be killed.
“People have no option but to stand against these incidents and those who oppose peace,” said Wali, the marcher. “Peace is our priority and the warring sides should listen to the people.”
(Reporting by Mohammed Stanekzai in Lashkargah, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in Kabul; Writing by Paul Carsten, Editing by Angus MacSwan)