69 Afghans' Families Get a U.S. Apology

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A U.S. Army brigade commander in Afghanistan yesterday told the families of 69 civilians who were killed or wounded by members of an elite Marine Special Forces unit in March that he is "deeply, deeply ashamed" about the incident, describing the series of shootings along a civilian thoroughfare as a "terrible, terrible mistake."

Col. John Nicholson said he apologized to a group of Afghan people in the eastern Nangahar province on behalf of the U.S. government and delivered solatia payments of approximately $2,000 to the families of 19 innocent civilians who died as a result of the March 4 attacks. Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via a video feed from Afghanistan yesterday, Nicholson said the payments were "essentially a symbol of our sympathy to them" and "a way of expressing our genuine condolences over the incident occurring."

U.S. commanders have said that the incident began when a suicide bomber drove a small van filled with explosives into a Marine Corps Forces Special Operations convoy that was on its way to a base in Jalalabad. The Marines then fired on people nearby and along several miles of their ensuing route through a crowded roadway, according to early investigative findings and an Afghan government human rights group.

Early estimates showed that about a dozen civilians were killed; Nicholson said yesterday that the death toll has been confirmed to be 19, with 50 wounded.

The incident -- which resulted in the largest number of civilian deaths from a single U.S. action in the country since the war began -- raised significant ire within Afghan communities in the region. U.S. commanders quickly removed the Marine company from Afghanistan after the incident because of the tensions it could have caused among the local population. Maj. Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, who heads the Special Operations Central Command, ordered an investigation.

"The people are the center of gravity here, so, first and foremost in all that we do, we seek to do no harm to the people," Nicholson said. "So events such as that do set us back with the population, and they have to be addressed very directly and forthrightly with the Afghan people."

Nicholson said that he met with the families to explain that the United States goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, and that he read a statement expressing regret and asking for forgiveness. Solatia payments of about $2,000 are fairly standard in Iraq and Afghanistan when commanders believe U.S. troops are responsible for civilian deaths or damage to civilian buildings; they are not legal admissions of guilt or a crime, but instead are intended as signs of goodwill in war zones where the enemy is often hard to distinguish from the innocent.

"We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people," Nicholson read from the statement. "This was a terrible, terrible mistake."

Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command officials said most members of the Marine company are in Kuwait. Eight members -- including the company commander and the company's senior noncommissioned officer -- have returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"We regret the March 4 ambush of the Marine Special Operations Company in Afghanistan and offer our deepest sympathy to all of those involved," Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore, a spokesman for the command, said in a statement yesterday. "The events related to that ambush are currently under investigation. In the interest of preserving the presumption of innocence that all U.S. service members deserve when facing allegations of misconduct, we will not characterize the incident until we have all the facts."

Nicholson said investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service are in Afghanistan interviewing witnesses and victims. Kearney told The Washington Post last month that no evidence has been found showing that the Marine unit took enemy fire after the suicide bomb was detonated.

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