Excessive Force By Marines Alleged

Afghan students protested on March 6, two days after U.S. Marines shot civilians in the aftermath of a suicide attack.
Afghan students protested on March 6, two days after U.S. Marines shot civilians in the aftermath of a suicide attack. (By Rahmat Gul -- Associated Press)
By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 14, 2007

A platoon of elite Marine Special Operations troops reacted with "excessive force" after an ambush in Afghanistan last month, opening fire on pedestrians and civilian vehicles along a 10-mile stretch of road and killing 12 people -- including a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy and three elderly villagers -- an investigation by an Afghan human rights commission alleges.

The investigation, based on dozens of eyewitness interviews, found that Marines in a convoy of Humvees continued shooting at at least six locations along the road, miles beyond the site where they were ambushed by a suicide bomber in a van. They fired at stationary vehicles, passersby and others who were "exclusively civilian in nature" and had made "no kind of provocative or threatening behavior," according to a draft report of the investigation obtained by The Washington Post.

In addition to the 12 Afghans killed, including at least two women, 35 were wounded, and one Marine was injured by shrapnel.

U.S. officials familiar with the report by the constitutionally mandated Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said its findings are "troubling" and consistent with the U.S. military's preliminary investigation, which led this week to the opening of a criminal investigation into the March 4 shootings in Afghanistan's eastern Nangahar Province.

Together, the reports contain "more than sufficient evidence of wrongdoing" by the Marines, said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House panel that oversees U.S. Special Operations forces. "There is very troubling information in those reports that must be investigated," said Smith, who was briefed Thursday by Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.

"All available evidence and reports suggest that the . . . response at the very least employed excessive force against civilians as it was almost certainly disproportionate to any threat faced," according to the human rights group's report, which also alleges that other U.S. forces later arrived and cleaned up evidence of the shootings while denying Afghan police access.

Adm. William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, is expected to name a senior military officer who would be the convening authority for any criminal or administrative proceedings that could arise, U.S. officials said. Central Command legal officers are "sorting through" the military's initial investigation now, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott Miller, a spokesman for the command. Marine Corps and Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials declined to comment because investigations are ongoing.

The allegations contained in the commission's report indicate that the Marines opened fire on civilians in the vicinity of the suicide bomb, but then also killed six more and wounded at least 25 others in taxis, in buses and on foot along several miles of road as the convoy headed away from the scene toward Jalalabad.

One witness told investigators that his car was stopped about 45 yards from the convoy. "Suddenly they opened fire on my car and shot more than 240 bullets," the witness said. "I myself jumped out the car and got injured, but my father, friend and my nephew were killed in the car." Another witness said a woman was shot in front of her house.

Investigators in Kabul and Jalalabad interviewed approximately 50 witnesses and members of the local police force shortly after the shootings, but they were not allowed access to the Marine unit. Nader Nadery, a member of the human rights commission, said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan on Thursday that the review yielded major concerns about the Marines' actions.

"Our investigation shows there was excessive use of force in reaction to the bombing," Nadery said. "Our investigation shows that the attacks took place in several different locations and it was just shooting without making sure who the targets were."

Nadery said his organization turned a draft of the report over to U.S. and NATO officials early this week and received a response Wednesday, which included the military's announcement that an NCIS probe had been initiated Monday.

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