Afghans launch hunt for ministry shooting suspect

HEIDI VOGT RAHIM FAIEZ Associated Press Published:

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghan authorities said Sunday they have identified a suspect in the killing of two U.S. military advisers inside an Afghan ministry a day earlier and have launched a manhunt to track him down.

NATO and the British government recalled their international advisers from Afghan ministries in the capital late Saturday after two advisers -- a lieutenant colonel and a major -- were found dead in their office, shot in the back of the head. The names of the victims have not been released.

The attack came after days of violent protests over the burning of copies of the Quran at a U.S. base last week.

About 30 people have been killed in the violence since it emerged Tuesday that copies of the Muslim holy book and other religious materials had been thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at Bagram Air Field, a large U.S. base north of Kabul.

Four U.S. soldiers are among the dead -- two killed earlier in the week by an Afghan soldier, and two military advisers shot dead Saturday at the Interior Ministry.

"There is a suspect who is an employee of the Interior Ministry. He has been identified. Right now the police are trying to arrest him. He is on the run," the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement, citing initial findings by investigators.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed his calls for calm in a televised address to the nation Sunday.

"Now is the time to return to calm and not let our enemies use this situation," he said. Asked about the unprecedented recall of NATO staff, Karzai said it was understandable.

"It is a temporary step at a time when the people of Afghanistan are angry over the burning of the holy Quran," Karzai said.

The Taliban claimed that the shooter was one of their sympathizers and that an accomplice had helped him get into the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.

Members of the international military coalition described the removal of advisers as a temporary security measure, stressing that they did not expect it to affect partnerships with the Afghans that are key to preparing the country's security forces to take on more responsibility as international troops draw down.

"We continue to move forward and stand by our Afghan partners in this campaign. We will not let this divide the coalition," said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the international force. The NATO recall affects advisers numbered "in the low hundreds," Cummings said.

Catherine Arnold, a spokeswoman for the British Embassy, said Britain that "as a temporary measure" the embassy has "withdrawn civilian mentors and advisers from institutions within Kabul and that we're keeping the situation under review." She declined to say how many people were affected by the decision.

The U.S. government had already ordered its government advisers to stay inside the secure embassy compound earlier in the week out of fear of retribution, said Gavin Sundwall, a U.S. Embassy spokesman.

The protests appeared to be dying down on their own. There were no reports of violent demonstrations as of midday Sunday.

It would be the first day of calm following five days of protests that turned into riots.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized for what they said was a mistake, but their regrets did not quell the anger of Afghans, who viewed the Quran burnings as an illustration of what they perceive as foreign disrespect for their culture and religion.

The shootings of U.S. service members were the latest in a rising number of incidents where Afghan soldiers or policemen, or gunmen wearing their uniforms, have killed NATO forces. Last month, France suspended its training program and threatened to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French soldiers on a base in the east.