Baffled soldiers who discovered the copies of Islam's holy book asked an elder what was happening. He told them that villagers feared they would be killed merely for being Muslims.

The misunderstanding underlines the depth of confusion and mistrust caused by foreign troops in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas in the south and east where the coalition is most active.

In many cases that mistrust has turned to hatred, as aggressive search tactics and a general sense among Muslims of being under siege plays into the hands of the very people the US military is trying to wipe out.

"On the slightest suspicion they arrest us and treat us like animals," said Haji Allah Dad, a 50-year-old resident of Sher-o-Aba, a village six kilometres east of the town of Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan.

"Their treatment is so inhuman that sometimes we even think of joining the 'jihad' of the Taliban against them."

Villagers in Sher-o-Aba are incensed at what they call arbitrary arrests and physical abuse by US troops, who clashed with suspected Taliban sympathisers in the area in late July.

US forces, aid workers, foreign peacekeepers and government troops are all facing a rising threat in Afghanistan, with no apparent let-up in the hit-and-run tactics of Taliban or al-Qaida fighters operating from along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The ousted Taliban continue to fight back

Attacks using grenades, small arms, mines and improvised bombs bear an uncanny resemblance to the methods used by the resistance fighters against the US military in Iraq.

US military spokesman Colonel Rodney Davis said that, in his experience, US forces always tried to conduct themselves well.

"Coalition forces are not here to hurt native Afghans," he said. "They are not here to damage or steal anything from Afghans. They are here to help Afghan people."

Rude awakening

Sher-o-Aba is like many Afghan villages, featuring clusters of sun-baked, mud-walled houses.

Most of its inhabitants are either farmers growing melons and spinach, or shepherds, all living in a world that, until recently at least, had barely changed for centuries.

But a rude awakening followed the US-led war that toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The village was the scene of recent clashes between US forces and suspected Taliban guerrillas.

"They consider anyone growing a beard and wearing a turban as al-Qaida or Taliban"

Pahalwan,
local grocer

Between three and five fighters died in and around the village on 20 July, and the US military said it had killed up to 19 others in surrounding hills after chasing them down with helicopter gunships.

Residents say that, before and after the clashes, they have been subjected to repeated sweeps by coalition forces. In this deeply conservative country, Afghans complain that their women are searched and their homes broken into.

Pahalwan, a visibly angry 33-year-old grocer, recalls how on 26 July US and Afghan forces arrested five villagers on suspicion of being Taliban supporters.

"I am sure they are innocent and they have nothing to do with the Taliban," he told Reuters. "They consider anyone growing a beard and wearing a turban as al-Qaida or Taliban."

An elderly woman, Khadija Khatoon, who lives in the Loi Karez area near Sher-o-Aba, said over 50 families had left their homes and taken refuge in neighbouring Pakistan.

"They were fed up with daily searches and operations over the last year-and-a-half."

Caught in the crossfire

The Americans are not the only visitors to these dirt-poor villages. Locals often feel caught in the crossfire.

"The Taliban come to our houses and say the 'jihad' against Americans is a religious obligation and we should join them in their fight and must not spy on the activities of the Taliban," said Khatoon.

She said that, around three months ago, the Taliban killed three people in her village on suspicion of being "informers" for the Afghan government.

The Americans claim they have come to help.

"Whenever these tall people with blue eyes come to our village, we become very scared," said eight-year-old Saira Bibi as she fetched water from a well in Loi Karez.

"They take away people and ask us about the Taliban. I haven't seen the Taliban. I don't know who these Taliban are."

Mullah Abdul Rauf Akhund, a provincial governor under the former Taliban regime, said the militia's actions were justified.

"No one is safe in Afghanistan now. The Taliban is fulfilling its religious obligation by waging jihad against Americans and their stooges," he said by telephone from a secret location.

A spate of clashes and attacks suggest the threat to coalition and government soldiers in Afghanistan is growing.

Afghan officials estimate that some 80 Taliban fighters have been killed in the last five months. More than 100 Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed in clashes this year.