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Canadian soldiers from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) walks into an Afghan police station in the center of Kandahar city, June 9 2009. (JORGE SILVA)
Canadian soldiers from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) walks into an Afghan police station in the center of Kandahar city, June 9 2009. (JORGE SILVA)

Kandahar police chief killed in shootout Add to ...

Members of a shadowy Afghan counterterrorism force stand accused of killing Kandahar's police chief after a stunning shootout that highlights Afghanistan's struggle to evolve from the rule of the gun to rule of law.

The ally-on-ally attack also killed a leading police detective and at least four rank-and-file officers. The slayings yesterday are a devastating blow for a fledgling civil society, precisely the kind of damage that Taliban insurgents yearn to inflict.

Forty-one members of the rogue unit were arrested after the shootout. The gunmen had allegedly stormed Kandahar's justice complex, demanding prosecutors hand over a prisoner.

When the lawyers retorted that the law didn't support that sort of extralegal rendition, police were called in to resolve matters.

It was these officers who ended up being shot, fatally in some cases.

Officials in Washington and Kabul distanced themselves from the shootings by pointing fingers at one another. Within hours, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the gunmen were U.S.-employed private security contractors. Pentagon spokesmen claimed the shooting was "purely an Afghan-on-Afghan incident."

The Canadian military characterized the gunmen more precisely: "An Afghan special unit that supports U.S. counterterrorism" but which acted "on their own volition, without orders."

That portrayal speaks to a clandestine squad trained to operate in the shadows, but that ended up achieving global notoriety for gunning down police in public.

Now, the world will be watching to find out more about these men, how they were trained and why they may have acted so contemptuously toward law enforcement. None of the suspects have been identified. It is anticipated they will face a military trial.

Witnesses said that before noon, dozens of armed men in uniforms pulled up in pickup trucks to the criminal-justice complex in Kandahar City, surrounding the building in a co-ordinated fashion, and storming inside.

A man who claimed to be in the justice complex at the time told The Globe and Mail the gunmen spoke directly to Kandahar's top prosecutor, demanding the immediate release of the prisoner.

The reply was along the lines that the Afghan constitution wouldn't permit that. The Afghan National Police were called in, but a heated verbal exchange was quickly followed by an exchange of gunfire - killing the local chief, Matiullah Qati, his head of criminal investigations, Abdul Khaliq Hamdard, and several subordinates.

The gunmen fled without the prisoner, and were arrested around Kandahar City in circumstances that remain murky.

Just who the prisoner was and why his transfer was seen as so crucial is also a mystery. One report identified him as a man named "Assadullah." Rumours about the man said he was an alleged document forger, or a man arrested on a technicality or a close relative of one of the leaders of the rogue unit.

In the aftermath of the shootout, Kandaharis slyly gossiped that the gunmen were likely denizens of "Mullah Omar's house," a reference to a compound that used to belong to the fugitive Taliban leader, but now is populated by Western intelligence agencies.

Just hours after the shootings, Mr. Karzai took pains to brand the gunmen as agents of the West who would be given up only grudgingly.

"Reports suggest that gunmen of a private security company employed by coalition forces … attacked the prosecutor's office," his terse statement said. Demanding the suspects' immediate handover, Mr. Karzai urged foreign militaries to "avoid actions that weaken the government."

Mr. Karzai, running for re-election, has lately stepped up his public criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States, but the handover wasn't ever really an issue.

The U.S. military took pains to say it had no direct involvement in the shootings, even though spokesmen refused to spell out any relationship with the gunmen.

The Canadian Forces, which NATO placed in charge of Kandahar Province, reacted in several stages. First, officials imposed an unexplained but short "communications lockdown" on reporters as soldiers secured the crime scene and helped make arrests.

Then, the Canadian commander, Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, made a statement: "These were not [NATO]security guards in any way, shape or form," he said, adding they didn't fall under the U.S. military umbrella, nor were they private security.

Brig.-Gen. Vance simply called them "Afghan security forces."

Hours later, his officials clarified that the suspects were "41 members of an Afghan special unit that supports U.S counterterrorism."

In addition to its soldiers, Canada has sent civilian aid teams to Kandahar. Millions of dollars are being spent on plans to "strengthen the Afghan rule of law," which is proving a tall order. Training, equipment and know-how are being supplied to the Attorney-General's Office, the site of the police shootings.

Taliban insurgents strive to undermine Afghanistan's fledgling criminal-justice system. Almost daily they succeed in killing police and frequently set their sites on police chiefs.

The police chief of Panjwai, a region just west of Kandahar, was killed by an improvised bomb early this month. A few weeks before that, the police chief of Arghandab, north of the city, was nearly killed by a suicide bomber. He is recovering abroad.

There are few prosecutors and judges in the region and they are generally scared to venture from Kandahar City. In the farmlands, insurgents have set up sharia-style courts, where Taliban-approved mullahs dispense rough justice as they see fit.

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