Marines Killed Civilians, U.S. Says

By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 15, 2007

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 responsible 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.

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