Early report: Marines not fired upon
All victims of a March 4 incident were Afghan civilians, a general says.

Published April 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - A preliminary U.S. military investigation indicates that more than 40 Afghans killed and wounded by Marines after a suicide bombing in a village near Jalalabad last month were civilians, the U.S. commander who ordered the inquiry said Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, 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 10 people and wounding 33, among them elderly men and women and children.

"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 Afghanistan, Iraq and the region.

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.

On Saturday, however, Kearney said of the killed and wounded: "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 an inquiry 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 3 miles as they left the ambush site in a convoy, Kearney said. But he did not dispute allegations from the Afghan human right investigation that the shooting had gone on much longer.

"We do not dispute 16 kilometers (10 miles)," the distance that an official Afghan human rights investigation determined.

But Kearney said, "We did not find physical evidence" beyond 3 miles.

The civilian death and injury toll in the incident is one of the largest for which coalition troops are allegedly responsible 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 a (suicide vehicle bomb) that had little impact on our convoy," Kearney said. "Everyone is taking this seriously."