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Afghans Protest Against U.S. On Civilian Deaths Report

MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Thousands of Afghans protested against President Hamid Karzai and the United States over reports of fresh civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led troops during a raid against Taliban militants.

The issue of civilian casualties is sensitive in Afghanistan and has eroded public support for Karzai's government and the foreign troops backing it.

It has also caused a rift between Karzai and his Western allies more than seven years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban's government.

The operation causing the latest controversy happened this week in eastern Laghman Province. The U.S. military said on January 24 that troops, backed by air support, had killed 15 militants in an overnight operation.

Assadullah Wafa, a Karzai adviser investigating the deaths, said on January 25 that "16 civilians, many of them children and women, were killed" in the operation.

"We strongly condemn it and want an end to it [civilian casualties]", he told reporters in Mehtar Lam, Laghman's provincial capital, where the protest was held.

A statement from the presidential palace quoted Karzai as saying that bombing villages and causing civilian deaths "will not bear any progress in the war against terrorism."

Karzai said failure to coordinate attacks with his government would weaken its sovereignty and bolster the militants, it added.

A spokesman for the U.S. military said it planned to jointly investigate the incident with the Afghan government this week.

Chanting slogans against Karzai and the United States, thousands of people took part in the protest, despite heavy rain.

"If the foreign troops do not put an end to their operations, we will launch jihad," said Malik Hazrat, a protest leader.

The provincial governor tried to calm the demonstrators and invited them for talks with representatives of the U.S.-led troops. But some protesters threw stones at him and he stopped his speech.

There was no report of injuries and by midday the protest had simmered down.

Nearly 700 civilians were killed in operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants until October last year, according to a national human rights body based on a UN estimate.

Karzai, who has repeatedly urged foreign troops to coordinate operations with his government, last week termed civilian deaths as a main source of Afghanistan's instability.