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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - In a rare confrontation between U.S. forces and their Afghan allies, U.S. Marines guarding the American Embassy exchanged fire Wednesday with Afghan troops. Four Afghans were killed.

Afghan officials called the shooting "a misunderstanding," saying jittery Marines opened fire believing they'd come under attack. The U.S. Embassy said only that the loss of life was regrettable and an inquiry was under way.

The shooting came a day after the United States raised its terror alert level, warning of possible attacks on Americans worldwide.

There have been few signs of serious tension between the U.S. military and its Afghan allies since American forces deployed in the country after ousting the Taliban regime in 2001.

Trouble was first reported Tuesday night when an Afghan soldier lobbed a grenade at Marines guarding the embassy, diplomatic and peacekeeping officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The grenade did not go off, and the soldier retreated to a barracks across the street.

Kabul Police Chief Basir Salangi said Afghan authorities were investigating Wednesday's shooting and it was too early to know what caused it. But he said he believed Afghan soldiers were transferring weapons to an intelligence agency compound across the street from the embassy when American soldiers opened fire in the belief they were about to be attacked.

"It was a misunderstanding between the American guards at the U.S. Embassy and our soldiers who were unloading weapons," Salangi told The Associated Press.

He said three Afghan soldiers were killed and two wounded. Officials at the military hospital in Kabul said another soldier died shortly after being brought in. There were no reported U.S. casualties.

A spokesman for the international peacekeeping force that patrols Kabul, Dutch Lt. Col. Paul Kolken, said there were unconfirmed reports Afghan soldiers fired several shots at a vehicle passing by the embassy, perhaps because it had failed to stop at a checkpoint.

"In doing so, they fired in the direction of the American Embassy and the American soldiers standing guard there returned fire," Kolken said.

Another spokesperson for the multinational force, British Maj. Sarah Wood, said several heavy bursts of fire were heard, followed by as much as five minutes of "fairly light" gunfire.

French peacekeepers traveling down the road at the same time stopped and intervened to calm the situation, Wood said. Afterward, French forces treated some of the wounded.

Another peacekeeper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said French soldiers fired two shots, but it was not clear whether they were warning shots fired into the air or at the Afghan forces.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Fernandez issued a statement confirming only that "heightened tensions led to a live fire incident between U.S. Marines defending the embassy and Afghan military forces."

"Both sides will continue to meet and work to ensure security in the area. The U.S. Embassy regrets the loss of life in this incident," Fernandez said, refusing further comment.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the shooting: "We do think our Marines were responding to what they perceived as a threat. There was firing …. we'll just have to see exactly how the whole thing came about."

The embassy compound is heavily guarded and its high walls are topped with barbed-wire and sandbagged guard towers manned by U.S. Marines. By nightfall, Afghan security forces and peacekeepers still were blocking streets leading to the compound.

Afghan soldiers with assault rifles are a frequent sight across the street, where they guard the intelligence barracks, the entrance to the peacekeeping headquarters and, farther down the road, the presidential palace.

No previous serious security incidents have been reported outside the embassy in Kabul since it was reopened in December 2001 for the first time since 1989.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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