Marines Killed Civil­ians, U.S. Says

Mil­i­tary Re­ports 10 Afghans Died And 33 Were Hurt

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White

A pre­lim­i­nary U.S. mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­di­cates that more than 40 Afghans killed or wounded by Marines af­ter a sui­cide bomb­ing in a vil­lage near Jalal­abad last month were civil­ians, the U.S. com­man­der who or­dered the probe said yes­ter­day.

Maj. Gen. Frank H. Kear­ney III, head of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand Cen­tral, also said there is no ev­i­dence that the Marine Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions pla­toon came un­der small-arms fire af­ter the bomb­ing, al­though the Marines re­ported tak­ing en­emy fire and see­ing peo­ple with weapons. The troops con­tin­ued shoot­ing at per­ceived threats as they trav­eled miles from the site of the March 4 at­tack, he said. They hit sev­eral ve­hi­cles, killing at least 10 peo­ple and wound­ing 33, among them chil­dren and el­derly vil­lagers.

“We found . . . no brass that we can con­firm that small-arms fire came at them,” Kear­ney said, re­fer­ring to am­mu­ni­tion cas­ings. “We have tes­ti­mony from Marines that is in con­flict with unan­i­mous tes­ti­mony from civil­ians at the sites,” Kear­ney said in a tele­phone in­ter­view from his head­quar­ters in Qatar, where he over­sees all U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces in the re­gion, in­clud­ing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The re­sults of the pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which are not con­clu­sive, are sim­i­lar to the find­ings of an of­fi­cial Afghan hu­man rights in­quiry and con­tra­dict ini­tial re­ports that the civil­ians might have been killed in a small-arms at­tack that fol­lowed the sui­cide bomb­ing.

“We cer­tainly be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble that the in­com­ing fire from the am­bush was wholly or partly re­sponsi-

ble for the civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” Maj. William Mitchell, a U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Afghanistan, said im­me­di­ately af­ter the March 4 at­tack, ac­cord­ing to a BBC re­port.

Yes­ter­day, how­ever, Kear­ney said of the killed and wounded: “My in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer be­lieves those folks were in­no­cent. . . . We were un­able to find ev­i­dence that those were fight­ers.”

On Kear­ney’s or­ders, the Naval Crim­i­nal In­ves­tiga­tive Ser­vice is con­duct­ing a probe that could lead to courts-mar­tial of those in­volved.

The mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tion found di­rect ev­i­dence, such as bro­ken glass, show­ing that the Marines kept fir­ing for about three miles as they left the am­bush site in a con­voy, Kear­ney said. But he did not dis­pute al­le­ga­tions from the Afghan hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tion that the shoot­ing had gone on much longer.

“We do not dis­pute 16 kilo­me­ters,” Kear­ney said; the of­fi­cial Afghan hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tion de­ter­mined the shoot­ing went on for that dis­tance, 10 miles. But Kear­ney said that “we did not find phys­i­cal ev­i­dence” be­yond three miles.

The civil­ian death and in­jury toll in the in­ci­dent is one of the largest for which coali­tion troops have been ac­cused since the war in Afghanistan be­gan in 2001.

“This was a sin­gle in­ci­dent that had a cat­a­strophic out­come from a per­cep­tions point of view,” Kear­ney said. “There was an in­or­di­nate amount of civil­ian deaths as a re­sult of” the sui­cide bomb­ing, which he said “had not much ef­fect on our con­voy.” He added: “Ev­ery­one takes this very, very se­ri­ously.”

One Marine was in­jured by shrap­nel in the sui­cide bomb­ing, but there was no need for med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion.

The Marines Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­pany had be­gun op­er­a­tions from its base in Jalal­abad about Feb. 19, Kear­ney said, and the pla­toon was con­duct­ing a pa­trol to fa­mil­iar­ize it­self with lo­cal routes on March 4 when the am­bush took place.

The six-Humvee con­voy had stopped at an­other U.S. camp near the Pak­istan border and was on its way back to Jalal­abad when a Toy­ota van moved to the shoul­der along with other on­com­ing traf­fic. The van sud­denly swerved be­tween the first and sec­ond Humvees, and the sui­cide bomber det­o­nated the bomb, Kear­ney said.

Marines in the con­voy be­lieved that they were tak­ing en­emy fire from sev­eral lo­ca­tions along the sides of the road, Kear­ney said. They deemed ve­hi­cles along the road threats and shot at five or six of them — one be­cause it failed to re­spond to their di­rec­tion, and an­other be­cause it ap­peared to be try­ing to force them in a cer­tain di­rec­tion, Kear­ney said.

“They re­ported re­ceiv­ing en­emy fire from a num­ber of lo­ca­tions. . . . They be­lieved they saw folks with weapons,” he said.

The swift U.S. mil­i­tary re­sponse to the Afghanistan in­ci­dent and Kear­ney’s can­dor about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­trasts with the much slower and more guarded re­sponse to other cases in­volv­ing al­leged killings of civil­ians by U.S. troops, such as the one in Ha­ditha, Iraq, in 2005.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion found 10 killed and 33 wounded, while an of­fi­cial Afghan re­port put the num­bers at 12 killed and 35 wounded.

The Afghanistan In­de­pen­dent Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion re­leased its re­port on the in­ci­dent yes­ter­day, along with a sep­a­rate, more gen­eral re­port on vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law across the coun­try in re­cent months. The sec­ond study said ac­tions by the Tal­iban, Afghan na­tional forces and in­ter­na­tional forces reg­u­larly put civil­ian lives at risk.

The com­mis­sion’s in­quiry into the March 4 in­ci­dent, re­ported in The Wash­ing­ton Post yes­ter­day, found that a 4-year-old girl, a 1-yearold boy and three el­derly vil­lagers were among the dead.

Khaleeq Ah­mad, a spokesman for Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai in Kabul, said yes­ter­day that he had not yet seen the hu­man rights com­mis­sion re­port and could not com­ment on it. Karzai was trav­el­ing yes­ter­day in Jalal­abad on an un­re­lated mat­ter, Ah­mad said.

Kear­ney said that his com­mand’s “ma­jor con­cern is to pro­tect the Afghan peo­ple” but that the pla­toon’s al­leged ac­tions had made it im­pos­si­ble for the unit to con­tinue its mis­sion in Afghanistan. Late last month he or­dered the pla­toon of about 30 men and its 120-man par­ent unit, a Marine Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions com­pany, to with­draw from Afghanistan, where it had been op­er­at­ing from a small base in east­ern Nan­ga­har prov­ince.

Kear­ney said other, lesser fac­tors also in­flu­enced his de­ci­sion to re­move the com­pany: an­other in­ci­dent in­volv­ing civil­ians in which mem­bers of the unit had opened fire, a ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent, and dis­ci­plinary and ad­min­is­tra­tive prob­lems.

“If we em­ployed them and they had an­other en­gage­ment . . . they would never get a fair judg­ment re­gard­less of what oc­curred,” Kear­ney said. The Marines are eas­ily dis­tin­guish­able be­cause they wear dif­fer­ent uni­forms from other U.S. forces.

The Marines were among the more than 27,000 U.S. troops now bat­tling a resur­gent Tal­iban and other fight­ers in Afghanistan, pri­mar­ily in the south and along the east­ern border with Pak­istan, where the am­bush took place. More than half the U.S. forces fall un­der NATO com­mand, but the rest, in­clud­ing all Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces, re­main un­der U.S. com­mand.

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