By Abdul Malek
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO troops and Afghan security forces opened fire during a demonstration in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, sharply raising the political temperature in one of the most volatile parts of the country.
Accounts differed over the number of casualties and the roles played by NATO and Afghan troops in the incident in Garmsir, a former Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province now patrolled by U.S. Marines under NATO command.
Reports of civilian deaths and injuries caused by Western and government troops are among the most sensitive issues in Afghanistan and have led to street demonstrations in several cities in recent weeks.
NATO-led forces said troops had returned fire to kill an insurgent sniper who shot an Afghan official on a military base while the demonstration was underway. They said the only person they had hit was the sniper himself, shot dead.
Kamal Khan, deputy provincial police chief in Helmand, said Afghan troops in the town had opened fire after demonstrators tried to storm a government building. He said eight demonstrators had been killed and 13 wounded.
A Reuters reporter saw several wounded villagers taken to the main hospital in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, but was not able to count them. A doctor at the hospital, Ahmadullah, said 11 men had been treated for gunshot wounds there.
The demonstrations followed a raid by Western troops in the town. Khan, the deputy police chief, said the demonstrators had been provoked by Taliban fighters who spread rumors that the Western troops had acted against Islam.
Haji Jan Gul, who described himself as one of the demonstrators, said that his son had been killed in the melee. The foreign forces opened fire when protesters threw stones at them, he said.
"The foreigners shot many people in the streets, some 10 people died and others were wounded," he said.
The statement from the NATO-led force said a sniper had shot an Afghan official on the grounds of the main NATO base in Garmsir, Forward Operating Base Delhi.
"ISAF service members identified the insurgent sniper, shot and killed him. There were no other injuries or shots fired."
Villagers said the demonstrations were triggered by reports the foreign troops had desecrated a Koran during a raid. A spokesman for the NATO-led force, Lieutenant Nico Melendez, strongly denied any desecration of holy books had taken place.
"ISAF is an international force and includes Muslim soldiers, so we would deplore such an action. But, we take such allegations very seriously and would support a combined investigation with local Afghan authorities," he said in an e-mail.
He said that no shots were fired and no one was detained during the initial raid which triggered the demonstration. The raid was carried out by Afghan troops supported by international forces, he said.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Peter Graff in Kabul)