April 5th, 2010
09:16 AM ET

New inquiry ordered in killing of Afghan civilians during raid

[UPDATE: 1:49 p.m. ET]: From Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has ordered a second investigation into the deaths of three Afghan women and two men during a botched nighttime raid in February, after Afghan investigators said they found evidence of possible tampering with evidence at the compound where the Afghans were killed.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who oversees all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, ordered the review after receiving a briefing from Afghan officials in late March, according to Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a NATO military spokesman.

The Afghan officials from the Ministry of Interior told McChrystal they visited the compound some time after the incident and found evidence of bloodstained walls being washed down and bullets being dug out of walls, according to two U.S. military officials. McChrystal wants a thorough review now to see why U.S. and Afghan accounts differ so greatly, according to one of the sources, a senior US official familiar with the briefing.

The official said the by the time the Afghan investigators got to the compound the people who lived there may have been attempting to clean it up. NATO officials believe the U.S. and Afghan troops may have dug some bullets out of the wall for purposes of the initial investigation, a common practice, the official said.

In March, ISAF released a statement denying a report by a British paper that NATO had “covered up” the troops involvement in the incident. U.S. officials continue to deny there was a “cover up” of U.S. involvement but the senior U.S. official who spoke to CNN Monday said there needs to more investigation into why the U.S. and Afghan accounts differ.

"We have no evidence to date anything improper was done," according the senior US official.

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) - NATO acknowledged Sunday that its troops killed five Afghans in a botched nighttime raid in February - after initially saying the civilians may have been victims of an "honor killing."

Even though civilian casualties at the hands of NATO troops have fallen off in recent months, such incidents have strained relationship between Afghanistan and the Western nations that make up the International Security Assistance Force.

At the time of the February 12 incident, NATO said its troops went to a compound in the village of Khatabeh in the Paktia province, believing it to be a militant hideout.

A firefight ensued and several insurgents died, NATO said at the time.

When soldiers entered the compound, they found the bodies of two men and two women who had been shot "execution-style," a senior U.S. military official said then.

"It has the earmarks of a traditional honor killing," the official said, adding that the women were found bound and gagged.

An honor killing is a murder carried out by a family or community member against someone thought to have brought dishonor to them.

The U.S official said at the time it wasn't clear whether dishonor in the case stemmed from accusations of acts such as adultery or even cooperation with NATO forces.

But on Sunday, NATO made an about-face from its earlier claims.

"International forces were responsible for the deaths of three women who were in the same compound where two men were killed by the joint Afghan-international patrol searching for a Taliban insurgent," it said in a statement. There was no explanation given of the third woman's death.

The two armed men that troops killed were not insurgents, NATO said.

"The force went to the compound based on reliable information in search of a Taliban insurgent and believed that the two men posed a threat to their personal safety," it said. "We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families."

NATO said a lack of forensic evidence made it difficult for it to conclusively determine how or when the three women died. But it concluded they were killed when troops fired at the men.

As for the initial report about the women being found bound and gagged, the NATO statement said it stemmed from a cultural misunderstanding.

"The statement noted the women had been bound and gagged, but this information was taken from an initial report by the international members of the joint force who were not familiar with Islamic burial customs," the statement said, without elaborating.

NATO troops who went to the scene after the raid may have misinterpreted burial rites. Muslims wrap their dead in clean white cloth before they are laid in the ground.

NATO said it will apologize to the victims' family members and offer compensation in accordance with local customs.

The NATO admission follows the fatal shooting of five Afghan soldiers by troops in a friendly fire incident in northern Afghanistan on Friday. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has strongly criticized civilian deaths by international troops, and the deaths have bred resentment among many Afghans.

The numbers have fallen off in recent months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal took over as U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

"It is better to miss a target than to cause civilian casualties," he said in December. "We can always target enemy leaders later. We can't make up for the fact that we killed civilians."

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