Did U.S. forces mistakenly kill an Afghan journalist?


Omaid Khpulwan was killed in southern Afghanistan in late July. (Courtesy BBC )

In late July, a reporter for the BBC was at a television station in southern Afghanistan when it was attacked by suicide bombers. The reporter, Omaid Khpulwak, was killed.

But a month after Khpulwak’s death, fundamental questions remain: Who killed him, and were U.S. military forces, instead of the suicide bombers, responsible?

A detailed report issued by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group, says there is ample evidence to suggest that Khpulwak may have been killed by U.S. forces during a counter-attack. The report is not conclusive, but it cites evidence, including the nature of Khpulwak’s wounds, the timing of his death and ballistics, to shed doubt on the initial reports that Khpulwak was killed in the suicide bombings in Uruzgan province.

The 25-year-old stringer was found with gunshot wounds and bleeding, according to his family, though those around him had had body parts blown off in the explosions. Text messages from him to his family appear to have been sent after the bombings.

In the course of the investigation, Kate Clark, a former BBC journalist, spoke with Khpulwak’s relatives, Afghan officials and the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. She also spoke to ballistics experts.

In a phone interview, Clark said it’s certainly possible that Khpulwak, who also worked for an Afghan news agency, was mistaken for an insurgent by the Americans, or perhaps by Afghan security forces. But she also allowed for the possibility that a Taliban gunman could have shot him dead after the initial suicide bombing.

“I think the jury is still out on this one, but I think there are enough indications that he was not killed by the Taliban that it’s worth presenting [the evidence] publicly,” she said.

Citing conflicting reports surrounding the circumstances of Khpulwak’s death, the BBC had earlier sought an investigation by the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. The broadcaster urged ISAF to report the findings to the BBC and to the reporter’s family “as urgently as possible.”

Col. Gary Kolb, an ISAF spokesman, said in an interview that officials were aware of the report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He said an official inquiry into the incident had not yet been concluded.

“Based on what we have seen so far, we’re confident that it will be thorough,” he said.

Even if Khpulwak was killed by U.S. forces, his killing may have been more of a tragic accident than a violation of international law — the failure of a soldier to recognize him as a civilian in the aftermath of an attack that killed and injured dozens of people.

Clark said that, in her investigation, she wanted to present the evidence as fairly as possible.

Khpulwak “was such a talented a journalist,” she said. “We owe it to him to work out what may have happened.”

Her full report is here.

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