By Daniel Cooney
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai, hours before flying to Washington for talks with President Bush, yesterday demanded greater control over U.S. military operations in his country and called for vigorous punishment of any U.S. troops who mistreat prisoners.
He also said he wants the United States to hand over all Afghan prisoners still in U.S. custody.
In a volatile southern province, meanwhile, a U.S. soldier was killed and three were wounded in the latest in a string of attacks launched by loyalists of the ousted Taliban regime.
Speaking to reporters before his first visit to the United States since he was installed in December as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, Mr. Karzai demanded more say over operations by the 16,700 U.S. troops still in the country, including an end to raids on the homes of Afghans unless his government is notified beforehand.
"No operations inside Afghanistan should take place without the consultation of the Afghan government," he said.
Mr. Karzai -- seen by his critics as an American puppet -- issued the tough statement after fresh reports of prisoner abuse by American forces at Bagram, the main military prison north of Kabul, and anti-U.S. riots that broke out across the country earlier this month, leaving 16 persons dead.
The unrest was triggered by a Newsweek magazine report, later retracted, that the Koran, Islam's holy book, was defiled by interrogators at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
There were fears a report in Friday's New York Times, based on the Army's criminal investigation into the December 2002 deaths of two Afghans at Bagram, could re-ignite anti-American sentiments.
Mr. Karzai said he was "shocked" by charges of prisoner abuse by poorly trained U.S. soldiers at Bagram and vowed to raise the issue during his four-day U.S. visit, which begins today.
"We want the U.S. government to take very, very strong action to take away people like that [who] are working with their forces in Afghanistan," Mr. Karzai said. "Definitely ... I will see about that when I am in the United States."
Responding to the abuse charges, Col. James Yonts, the U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said: "The command has made it very clear that any incidents of abuse will not be tolerated."
In Washington, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was "alarmed by the reports of prisoner abuse," and wants them thoroughly investigated. Mr. Duffy said seven persons were being investigated about abuse at Bagram.
In other developments yesterday, an Italian aid worker kidnapped in Kabul spent her sixth day in captivity, still with no clear word on her fate.
Taliban-led rebels kept up assaults in the south and east of the country. A roadside bomb killed one U.S. soldier and wounded three others as they patrolled in an armored vehicle in Zabul province, the U.S. military said. A purported spokesman for the Taliban took responsibility.
Brig. Gen. Greg Champion, a deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force 76, said in a telephone interview Friday from his headquarters at Bagram that the recent increase in insurgent violence was due mainly to a more aggressive approach by American and Afghan forces.
"We have not taken a posture of waiting" for the Taliban to begin their usual spring offensive, he said. Instead, U.S. and Afghan forces have been "going on our own offensive."
A mine explosion in southern Kandahar province wounded four Afghan soldiers, while a two-hour gunbattle between Taliban rebels and Afghan forces in Zabul left two insurgents dead, officials said.
In Ghazni province, four persons driving to a wedding were killed and four were wounded when an old land mine exploded under their vehicle, police said.