Reaction to Ambush In Afghanistan Probed

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007

The U.S. military announced yesterday that it has opened a criminal investigation into whether an elite Marine Special Operations platoon used excessive force in reacting to a suicide bombing in Afghanistan last month, an incident that left at least eight Afghan civilians dead.

Army Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, who commands U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, determined after an initial review of the March 4 incident that "the escalation of force might have been too high" and warranted an inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said Lt. Col. Lou Leto, a spokesman for Kearney's command.

"We deeply regret the loss of life and casualties that resulted from the [suicide vehicle] attack and the actions that followed," Leto said. "General Kearney wanted to really stress that our goal is the safety and security of the Afghan people."

A platoon of about 20 to 30 highly trained reconnaissance troops was traveling in a convoy of six vehicles in Afghanistan's eastern Nangahar province on March 4 when it was ambushed by fighters using a bomb-rigged vehicle and small-arms fire, according to U.S. military accounts. The troops fired back in self-defense.

Afghan witnesses said the Special Operations troops fired recklessly at passing vehicles and pedestrians along the crowded highway, which was flanked by markets. The U.S. military initially said 16 civilians were killed but changed the estimate to eight, with 35 others wounded. Local hospital officials said 14 people died.

The platoon belonged to a 120-member Marine Special Operations company, which was ordered to leave Afghanistan last month because Kearney determined the incident had so damaged its relations with the local population that it could no longer carry out its counterinsurgency mission. The company is still abroad and is located with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, "training and getting ready for their next assignment," Leto said.

The company was the first of nine planned to deploy under the Marine Special Operations Command, established in February 2006.

An NCIS spokesman said yesterday that an investigation into the incident is open but is in its "very early stages."

Kearney decided to refer the case to NCIS because "they are trained, schooled investigators," Leto said, adding: "Let the professionals do it."

Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.

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