The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan spread to the capital, Kabul, yesterday with sustained and deadly rioting after a US military vehicle ploughed into a group of civilians.
The US military said one person was killed and six injured and the vehicle had a "mechanical failure". The Afghan presidential palace said the vehicle had killed five Afghans. In the rioting, at least 14 died and 142 were injured.
The government imposed a curfew in Kabul. Yousuf Stanezai, an interior ministry spokesman, said all residents were to stay off the streets between 10pm and 4am. Anyone found outside would suffer "serious measures".
Akhmed Muneer, 27, a restaurant owner who saw the aftermath of the road accident, said US personnel opened fire, killing three people and wounding one, after incensed people turned on them at the scene. Afghan police lost control as unrest intensified and they opened fire, killing or wounding 20, Mr Muneer believed.
Rioting spread to many parts of the city, focused against foreign interests, with gunfire audible through the day. The offices of the charity Care International were burnt, and another mob looted furniture and attempted to burn the new Serena Hotel near the Kabul river, the city's first five-star venue.
Two bodies lay on the street outside the Serena, another two could be seen outside the women's affairs ministry and one outside the Kabul Business Centre in the Shar-e-Naw district, an area with many Western guesthouses. Also reportedly attacked were the Afghan parliament building, the interior ministry and a local television station, which filmed the destruction of its own studios.
Rioters, some carrying swords, roamed the streets, and there were reports of at least one Western aid worker pulled from his car and beaten. Cars were also burnt. The UN and foreign aid agencies placed an immediate ban on all movement within the city.
"There are some signs that things are calming," a UN spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said. "We remain very vigilant and on security alert. We are trying to ascertain whether it will be possible to get our staff home tonight; guesthouses have been attacked." UN staff were transported in armed convoys to designated safe houses overnight.
The last riots in Kabul were in February after publication of cartoons in Western newspapers depicting the Prophet Mohamed. Last year, there were disturbances over allegations that US guards desecrated the Koran in Guantanamo Bay. Both times, rioting spread to other parts of the country and continued for several days.
The underlying causes of yesterday's violence appear to be linked to growing anger and disillusionment with the Western-funded reconstruction effort.
"This pressure has been building for two or three years," said Dr Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister and political analyst. "From the radio, people have heard that billions of dollars are flowing into the country but they have got nothing. The cost of living has gone up, prices have risen and people are getting desperate. This is a warning to the government of the future; more serious repercussions. They must heed this warning."
Afghan politicians and the local press have blamed "overpaid" and "wasteful" NGOs, and the UN for the failure to make significant improvements to living conditions since 2001.
Many aid workers and diplomats say Afghanistan was almost totally ruined by the time the Taliban fell and much of the $12bn (£6.5bn) spent since then has gone on rebuilding the most basic infrastructure, a process impeded by endemic corruption, a Taliban insurgency in the south and a narcotics industry worth more than 50 per cent of the entire Afghan economy.
In the southern province of Helmand, Afghan officials reported a US airstrike on a mosque in Kajaki which killed 50 Taliban fighters, allegedly including several Taliban leaders. The area lies north of Camp Bastion, the new British camp in Helmand, which will eventually house more than 3,000 British troops.