Pentagon inquiry finds US Marine unit killed Afghan civilians

Afghan human rights group also says marines used 'excessive force' after a suicide bombing.

The Pentagon's preliminary investigation into a deadly incident last month in Afghanistan indicates that at least 10 innocent civilians were killed and 33 wounded by US marines.

The Washington Post reports that Maj. Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, said Saturday that there is no evidence that the marines came under small-arms fire after their convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber on March 4. The bombing injured one marine, but there was no need for medical evacuation.

"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. ...
...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 suicide bombing and subsequent violence took place when a Marine convoy was attacked outside Jalalabad last month. The marines claimed that they encountered a "complex ambush," where the bombing was followed by a small-arms attack, which was responsible for many of the civilian casualties. Afghan witnesses, however, say that the Marines fired indiscriminantly at passers-by on the busy highway. Further, The Associated Press reported at the time that a photographer and a cameraman, both working for the AP, said the marines later deleted their film and video of the aftermath of the attack.

The Afghan case was reiterated in a report Saturday from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The New York Times writes that the report says the marines reacted to the suicide bombing "with excessive force in eastern Afghanistan last month, hitting groups of bystanders and vehicles with machine-gun fire in a rampage that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men...."

In its report, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, condemned the suicide bomb attack that initially struck a convoy of a Marine Special Operations unit on March 4, wounding one American, and said that there may also have been small-arms fire directed at the convoy immediately after the blast. But it said the response was disproportionate, especially given the obviously non-military nature of the marines' targets long after the ambush.
"In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force," the report said. "Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards."

The report said that the convoy opened fire on civilians as it traveled a 10-mile (16-kilometer) stretch of highway. Gen. Kearney told the Post that while the US investigation only found evidence of marine fire over the first three miles, "We do not dispute [the human rights report's finding of] 16 kilometers."

The AP notes that Kearney ordered the 120-man unit of marines involved in the incident out of Afghanistan, a step which the AP describes as "highly unusual."

The Times writes that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission worries incidents like this are undermining coalition efforts to win Afghan support. Nader Nadery, the commission's deputy director, said, "There is a high level of frustration among the public and civilians that they are victims of both sides of the conflict."

Another report found that Afghan civilians are indeed the predominant victims of insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan. The report, released Monday by Human Rights Watch, found that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have "increased dramatically over the past 15 months, and many were the result of insurgents' failure to respect the laws of war."

"Suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks have risen dramatically since 2005, with almost 700 civilians dying last year at the hands of the Taliban and other such groups," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "The insurgents are increasingly committing war crimes, often by directly targeting civilians. Even when they're aiming at military targets, insurgent attacks are often so indiscriminate that Afghan civilians end up as the main victims."
The report documents how, in violation of the laws of war, insurgent forces have repeatedly, directly targeted civilians for attack, and how even attacks directed at Afghan and international military forces have often been launched without due regard for civilian life.

The report says that at least 669 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2006, and another 52 were killed in January and February 2007. Most of those killed died in attacks that appeared to target civilians directly, which the report says constitutes war crimes.

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