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Afghans Protest Against Civilian Deaths In Firefight

HERAT (Reuters) -- Dozens of people in northwestern Afghanistan have protested against civilian deaths, but local authorities say some elders in the area were to blame for helping a Taliban ambush.

Residents of Bala Murghab district of Badghis Province say six civilians, including women and children, were killed during firefight between Afghan and Taliban forces.

The deputy governor said only two civilians died, but added that local collusion with the insurgents made it hard for security forces to avoid innocent deaths during firefights.

"We know that two people including a woman were killed," said deputy governor Abdul Ghani Saberi. "We ask the people not to shelter the Taliban."

Saberi said that in a typical example of deceit earlier this week, local elders invited the government to attend peace talks but when a team arrived, they were led into an ambush that ended with the death of nine soldiers and some 30 insurgents.

Local residents say they are not colluding with the Taliban for ideological reasons, just trapped between two sides and trying to survive in a war zone.

"The government arrest and beat shopkeepers for selling groceries to the Taliban, but we are victimized by both sides," shopkeeper Haji Mohammad Shah told Reuters by phone.

He said shops were shuttered, and locals protesting, because six people including a shopkeeper and his wife were killed during fighting between Taliban and government forces.

The rising civilian death toll from operations to fight the Taliban insurgency has become an inflammatory issue, and is eroding support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and his foreign backers.

Around 2,000 civilians were killed last year in insurgency-related violence, UN and aid agencies say, and public anger rose again last month when U.S. air strikes hit homes full of women and children. Karzai said 140 civilians died.

In a separate incident Afghan troops backed by foreign air strikes killed four Taliban insurgents in Ghazni province on May 31, provincial district chief Abdul Ghafoor said.

In Wardak, west of Kabul, Afghan and U.S. forces killed four militants and detained two suspected militants during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in Sayed Abad district, the U.S. military said in a statement.